A community in mourning: stunned employees reel from Canton mill closure

Mar. 8—Cody Bledsoe is just 21 years old, but when he got hired on at the Canton paper mill in November, he thought he was set for life.

"I thought this was the job I was gonna settle down and retire from and now this," Bledsoe said Monday evening after learning of the impending mill closure. "It is very heartbreaking. I just can't imagine this is really happening."

For generations, the Canton paper mill has put food on the table and presents under the Christmas tree, sent kids to college, paid for cars and homes and anchored the county's entire economy.

That all came crashing down Monday evening with the devastating news that the mill would close by early summer.

"I am numb and heartbroken for the men and women of this community who are going home to their spouses and children and are trying to find the words to say they will not have a job very soon," Canton Mayor Zeb Smathers said Monday evening. "There is nothing I can say or do that will bring peace to that. There will be questions and answers in the coming days, but right now, I just hurt for the soul of Canton and Haywood County and everyone affected."

Given the magnitude of the mill closure, the community is still reeling in collective shock.

"This mill is the life of Haywood County. There are so many families who have worked there for generations and generations," said mill worker Trina Clark.

For Clark, losing her job isn't the worst of it.

"It's more than a paycheck to me," Clark said. "The employees are like a family. To be honest, if it wasn't for them, I'd be lost."

The ultimate test of a true friend, Clark's coworkers would be there in a heartbeat if she was stranded with a flat tire on the roadside in the middle of the night.

"The mill employees band together for each other. I can't tell you the number of times somebody has been injured or sick or had a family emergency, and the employees step up to take care of each other," Clark said. "It's a community within that mill we are losing."

The news was announced to mill managers in two rounds of meetings Monday — one at 4:30 p.m., followed by a second at 5:30 p.m.

As they exited the meetings, many seemed numb, their faces hollow and empty. Others had red teary eyes, too choked up to talk to the press. All were struggling to process the gravity of the news.

Word spread quickly to rank-and-file workers, and by the time dusk fell, a pall had settled over all of Canton.

"The mill has meant everything to the town of Canton," said Jason Hartline, a second-generation mill worker who's been at the mill 17 years. "It's going to affect the whole county."

Chain reaction

Indeed, the ripple effects of the mill's closure will extend far beyond the 900-plus employees losing their jobs at the Canton plant, and potentially another 200 to come at the Waynesville satellite plant.

"It's going to change everything. Ev-ery-thing," said Lisa Riddle, whose dad worked at the mill for four decades. "The businesses are all going to go down."

The spending power of mill employees touches every sector in every corner of the county.

"In May or June when this mill goes dark, the whole community goes dark," said mill worker Daniel Friberg, 37. "It will affect the value of everything people own."

Perhaps even more irreplaceable, however, is the mill culture that permeates the fabric of the community. Leeann Summey, whose dad Boney was killed in a wagon train accident on Jonathan Creek five years ago, will never forget the steady stream of mill workers who came through ICU as her dad fought for his life for three months.

"They just kept showing up, packs of them," Summey said. "They were his second family. That's what hurts the most. It's the sense of community."

Summey's dad worked at the mill as long as she could remember, making enough that her mom could be a stay-at-home mom for three kids.

"He raised us on the mill," she said. "I cried when I heard it was closing."

Summey works at the BP gas station off the Canton I-40 exit. It's a regular stop for mill workers on their way to and from work.

As they came through Monday evening, many were at a loss for words. Forlorn and dejected, customers would simply lock eyes and shake their heads in disbelief — afraid if they spoke the tears would start flowing again.

Smathers said Canton's identity as a mill town will live on, however. Offering a message of hope, Smathers assured the community that all is not lost.

"Being a mill town is not necessarily about having a mill," Smathers said. "It is about having character and grit and the ability to overcome adversity. Every single one of those traits will be called into service as we make it through this economic crisis. This is not the end of Canton. This is the end of a chapter."

Next moves

As word circulated among mill employees Monday evening — some learning through word-of-mouth and others finding out they'd lost their job from online media reports — some headed to the union hall in downtown Canton hoping to learn more details.

Union leaders met with corporate officials at 6:15 p.m., after the back-to-back meetings with managers. Like everyone else, union leaders had been in the dark about the impending closure. And the meeting with corporate apparently didn't shed much light.

When several union leaders walked back in to the union hall following the meeting, they were peppered with questions from workers — ones that seemed to have no answers yet.

David Blevins and Christopher Creasman were among those gathered at the union hall, pondering their futures.

"We were blindsided," said Creasman, who works in the products services department. "I've got two kids, one in middle school and one in high school."

He said he would start looking for work immediately, but that was before another employee walked in and mentioned rumored terms of the severance package — one that would require employees to stay until the plant closed to receive.

It's Creasman second time being laid off. During the Great Recession, he was handed a pink slip at a job site.

Blevins, 25, has only been at the mill for eight months. He left a job at Vulcan in Asheville to move closer to home and build a career. Blevins wasted no time reaching out to his former employer to see if they would take him back.

"I can imagine how many people will be looking for work," he said.

Mill worker Logan Moore doesn't know how he'll find a job with comparable pay to what he makes at the mill. He figures his only choice will be driving to Asheville.

"There's going to be a lot more people to compete with now," said Moore, 28. "It just sucks for all of us."

Many mill workers are clinging to the hope that a buyer will come along to save the mill and keep it open.

"If we can find someone who can buy this mill, we'd be in good shape," said Friberg.

But Pactiv Evergreen corporate officials have said nothing about the mill being for sale — merely that it would close. The paper industry is shrinking, witnessed by the mill shutting down its #20 paper machine last month due to a glut of inventory in the marketplace.

With paper stockpiled in its warehouse, waiting on a customer to buy it, Pactiv Evergreen may not be eager to hand an operational mill to a would-be competitor.

Mill worker Trina Clark, who has a kid to raise, hadn't yet begun to formulate her next move after hearing the news Monday evening.

"That's the question a lot of us are trying to figure out. We have no idea what we are going to do other than ride it out to the end," Clark said. "That's about all we can do at this point."

Reporter Vicki Hyatt contributed to this story.