March 29, 2020

Bowater plans to sell mill worries small towns north of Millinocket

HOULTON — While all eyes are now focused on the future of Millinocket as a result of Thursday’s announcement by Bowater Inc. to sell its Great Northern Paper Co. mill there, there is also worry in some of the smaller outlying towns to the north.

People who live in towns along Route 11 have long worked at the GNP mills, or in jobs related to their operations, such as logging and truck driving.

When GNP undertook a major restructuring in the mid-1980s, the Patten-Sherman area, 40 miles to the north, felt the effects as scores of people lost their jobs or retired early.

Now they are waiting again to see what will happen.

“We need more jobs in the area as it is, let alone losing some that we already have,” said Patten Town Manager Rhonda Harvey. “Quite a few of our citizens are employed there. It will have an impact on the town.”

In placing the nearly 100-year-old mill on the market, Bowater officials indicated that they hoped to sell the mill within three years. If they can’t, they would have to decide if they will modify it or sell it. There are 900 people currently employed there.

At the same time Thursday, company officials announced that they planned to make a $220 million investment to build a thermomechanical pulp mill in neighboring East Millinocket.

The greater efficiency of that operation, however, also could result in the loss of 200 to 300 jobs.

“It will affect all of us,” said Debra O’Roak, the town manager in Sherman. “Whether you work for them directly or indirectly, or you just own a gas station or a store, if there aren’t any jobs for any of those people, they won’t be doing business with any of our local people. It will be a loss of revenue for everybody.”

The loss of jobs in the region has already had a major impact on local schools. Over the last 12 years, SAD 25 has lost more than 25 percent of its students. That loss, coupled with rising costs and less state aid to education, prompted school officials more than a decade ago to start looking at cutting the number of schools in the district from six to two.

Last November, Sherman and Stacyville residents voted to close their local elementary schools next year as part of the consolidation effort. Patten residents also voted to close two schools there, but reversed that decision in a second election in late December.

Both O’Roak and Harvey said any loss of jobs in Millinocket or East Millinocket will no doubt affect further the enrollment situation in SAD 25.

“Some people may decide that they need to locate elsewhere,” said O’Roak. “The potential for decreased enrollment is certainly there.”

“If those jobs are lost, I can see people having to leave the area to get employment, and therefore it will make the enrollment decline even more than it is,” agreed Harvey.

Farther north in Ashland, the tone was more optimistic. Dan Levesque, president of the J.P. Levesque & Sons lumber mill, said Friday that the changes proposed by Bowater could turn out to be a good thing in the long run.

Levesque mills in Ashland and Masardis produce wood chips, some of which go to GNP to be used in the paper-making process. Levesque said the thermomechanical pulp mill that Bowater plans to build at East Millinocket will require more wood chips, which ultimately will be good for his mills.

At the same time, he said if another company buys the mill in Millinocket, that will only make things better because the mill would still need chips.

“If they find a good buyer, chances are they’ll be wanting to deal with us anyhow, and we won’t have any change at all,” he said.

Levesque is vice chairman of the Route 11-212 Corridor Committee, which for the past year has been lobbying the state to make improvements to the two roads, which are used to by mill operators to get their raw materials and ship products, including wood chips, to customers.

He said that with the potential demand for more wood-chip traffic to East Millinocket and Millinocket, improvements to Route 11 will be even more important.

“We’ll have to have more, better roads,” he said.

The changes at Great Northern also could affect operations for the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, though an official there indicated Friday that the railroad had not yet reached any conclusions.

“We’re taking a wait-and-see approach in terms of not only the future of the mill, but also what the impact will be,” said Ben Coes, spokesman for Iron Road Railways, the parent company of the B&A.

“We’re just beginning the process of assessing what the impact would be and the different variables and different possibilities,” he said. “Beyond that, we’re not going to have any comment.”

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