MILLINOCKET — For many years in this close-knit community, the presence of the mill seemed as strong and indestructible as mile-high Mount Katahdin.
Now, with the announcement of plans to sell the Great Northern plant there, many residents fear the mill will close, and with it will go a cherished way of life.
Along the sidewalks and storefronts of Penboscot Avenue, Millinocket’s version of Main Street, the impact of the news was unmistakable Thursday. Of close to a dozen townsfolk interviewed by the Bangor Daily News, all had some sort of connection to Great Northern: a husband, a friend, a summer job.
“It’s doom and gloom around here,” said an elderly woman on her way to the hairdresser. “We may as well turn the lights out on the town and leave.”
“It just sent shock waves through the town,” said attorney Nolan Tanous, whose law practice sits in the shadow of the mill’s smokestacks. Tanous counts mill employees as friends and clients, and said he worked summers there to help pay his way through college.
When he returned to Millinocket after completing law school in 1991, it was immediately clear the mill was no longer the stalwart fixture he remembered. “Since I’ve been back here, I’ve heard this mill could close,” Tanous said. “There was uncertainty before, and now there’s a lot more uncertainty.”
The cloud of fear that currently hangs over the town first appeared in the late ’80s and expanded as the mill endured new owners and massive layoffs.
Workers complained about outdated equipment. That, and the volatile nature of Maine’s paper industry, kept the rumor mill spinning for most of the past year.
Like most of his friends, Rick Bernier went to work at the mill right out of high school. That was 27 years ago. As the equipment operator explained, “If you didn’t go to college, it was understood — you went to GNP.”
Bernier was at the plant when the news came in from Bowater’s headquarters shortly after the start of the shift Thursday. The reaction among his co-workers, he said, was “grim, devastated.”
“Later on, a lady told me that she talked with a friend of mine,” he said. “She said it sounded like he wanted to cry over the phone.”
Yet, as he stood outside the Appalachian Trail Cafe, Bernier seemed remarkably unfazed by the news. He explained that he and his wife are taking a long-awaited cruise to the Caribbean next week. The announcement, he said, had not had time to sink in.
“Also, I’m hoping we’re still gonna find a white knight,” he added, pausing to reflect. “Of course, we thought we found that with Bowater.”
For most residents, Thursday’s announcement meant the idea of Millinocket without a mill was no longer unthinkable. The closing would mean not only the loss of more than 900 mill jobs, but countless more from businesses that directly feed off the plant. It would certainly translate into the loss of thousands of dollars in tax revenue and a continuing drop in property values in an already depressed real-estate market.
Debra Plourde said her husband, a Great Northern employee, left early Thursday before the news broke. She had not yet spoken to him as of Thursday afternoon, but talk of the announcement was all over town. She knew enough, she said, to know people were scared.
“The mill was built and the town was built around it,” she said. “If it closes, it affects business, public works, schools, everything.”
Along with their time-nurtured skepticism, some residents remained cautiously optimistic Thursday. They expressed hope Bowater and the town would begin an aggressive marketing campaign to find a buyer.
Some took solace in new Town Manager Paul Bird’s comments during a radio interview that the sale was an economic development opportunity for the town.
“I guess that’s the best spin you could put on it,” said attorney Tanous.