Thursday, July 18, 2024

NC trend: Canton looks for a new role after the shuttering of its landmark paper mill

Zeb Smathers

The silence is back, this time for good. A few years ago, on a summer night, Lashine Reynolds stood on the deck of her parents’ home as rain from a tropical storm swelled the Pigeon River. The house is next door to the billowing smokestacks, silos and rail sidings of Canton’s gargantuan paper mill.

In the flooded mill, as water reached half up the walls of the store-room where Reynolds’ father worked, supervisors frantically killed the electricity. Outside, scores of brilliant floodlights flicked off. 

The industrial rumble that filled this valley so long that residents no longer noticed
it was stilled.

“Suddenly, everything was black,” says Reynolds, born 54 years ago on the day her father, now retired, was hired by the mill. “I stood there on the deck thinking, ‘This just isn’t right at all. Not at all. Everything is just too quiet.’” 

Now, North Carolina manufacturing experts, historians, Reynolds and others who’ve lived their lives here read more than lost jobs and death of a local industry into the quiet that descended on Canton in May when the Pactiv Evergreen paper mill closed, this time permanently. About 1,050 jobs with annual salaries averaging more than $80,000 were lost, along with an estimated $2 million in annual local tax and utility revenue.

Canton’s issues prompted the state and nonprofits to offer help. Asheville-based Dogwood Health Trust, created from the $1.5 billion sale of Mission Health system in 2019, is giving the United Way of Highwood County $1 million for an emergency fund to help mill families.

About 150 miles to the east, the experience of Kannapolis gives Canton hope that dead mill towns can revive. Cannon Mills and the town’s  streets, rental houses, water, schools, police force and a YMCA were all owned by James Cannon, who founded the mill in 1905. Residents voted to incorporate in 1984, but 13 years later, Cannon Mills’ successor Pillowtex shut down, throwing 4,390 out of work. 

Kannapolis has bounced back strongly, benefitting from its proximity to Charlotte. In 2005, it landed the public-private N.C. Research Campus, developed by California investor David Murdock and backed by $23 million in annual lease payments from UNC System campuses. It’s an inspiration for dead mill towns. 

Zeb Smathers, 40, graduated from high school in Canton in 2001, then earned degrees from Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill. He rejoined his family’s law practice in downtown Canton, and was elected to the council in 2013 and as mayor since 2017.

“The mill was our heart, literally, physically, and in our souls,” says Smathers. “We have to rebuild the mindset that even though we’re a mill town, we deserve everything that everybody else has.” 

 Gary Salamido, president of the N.C. Chamber business-promotion group, cites Marion as a possible role model for Canton. More than 3,000 Baxter Healthcare employees make intravenous bags and other healthcare equipment in the McDowell County seat.  “Canton’s got work to do on the environment, cleaning the place up, but when that’s done, it’s going to be very appealing to somebody,” he says. “It’s got the workforce, the beauty of the mountains, access to markets.”

Mill towns dominated the state economically and politically from the  post-Civil War era until the late 20th century. Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, globalization, new technology, politics and other societal changes redefined their sense of community.

North Carolina still retains 550,000 manufacturing jobs with the sector having a larger impact than in most U.S. states. But it’s much more technical and reliant on skilled labor. The state’s prize new factory is Toyota Motor’s $4 billion electric-vehicle battery plant rising from the flat pinelands of Liberty, 20 miles south of Greensboro. It is expected to employ 2,500 in 2025, from a vast swatch of central North Carolina and southern Virginia.

Canton’s Imperial Hotel is a downtown landmark.

Starting over
Canton was a holdout among dozens of small mill towns and villages that thrived around a single industry. Robert Ferguson grew up in Eden, a Rockingham County town that once had 3,000 workers at a Fieldcrest Cannon mill. “It’s a good example of a dead mill town,” says the professor at Western Carolina University
in Cullowhee.

The mill shut down after its parent company went bankrupt in 2002.  Today, Eden has about 15,000 residents, or 600 fewer than in 1960. North Carolina’s population has more than doubled in the period, to 10.6 million in 2022.  

Canton, population about 4,000, is in a valley carved over millennia by the Pigeon River through the Haywood County mountains. “We’re the last blue-collar town in North Carolina,” Smathers says. 

At its end, the mill made paper cartons and boxes. Its key customers included Starbucks. At its peak, more than 10,000 worked at the mill, support industries and cutting pulpwood in the forests within a 100-mile radius.

Officials of Lake Forest, Illinois-based Pactiv Evergreen declined interview requests. The $6 billion revenue company operates more than 50 plants. Its federal filings blame the closing on plunging demand for liquid containers such as milk cartons, supplanted by plastic. The company is writing off $300 million related to the closing.  

Smathers and others here say Evergreen abandoned hundreds of workers and their families with little or no health insurance. Dismissed employees, including those at a smaller mill in Waynesville that remains open, are getting a week of pay for every year of service.

Some like Justin Medford seem lost, with limited severance and other benefits. “I’m starting over again,” says the 30-year company veteran.

The mill’s land site itself is a so-called brownfield, contaminated by more than a century of ground toxins that will cost millions to clean up before it can be repurposed. Pollution of the Pigeon had long been an issue, triggering U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervention and prompting neighboring Tennessee to sue. The mill pumped $50 million
into air and water pollution control in 2015, with much of the cost offset by state and federal aid.

N.C. Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Elizabeth Biser says remediation efforts are ongoing, and Evergreen is still “responsible for closure.” Adds Anna Alsobrook, who monitors rivers for Mountain True, an environmental group, Western North Carolina rivers like the Pigeon contain phthalates, so-called forever chemicals that are “harmful to human health and the environment.”

Town officials are skeptical that Evergreen will come through, leaving others stuck with the clean-up costs. The silence of the mill, however, echoes far beyond local hard feelings. 

Last fall, before the closing, its smokestacks were like a fumarole in a sea of autumn reds and yellows. Minus the big mill, Haywood County’s forested peaks and Canton’s meandering river would have resembled the landscape pioneers found.  

“The area was pretty much subsistence farming,” says Dan Pierce, who grew up in the region and is now a history professor at UNC Asheville. Canton’s YMCA “was much nicer than Asheville’s, and it was among a lot of things provided by Champion. There was always the sulfur smell, of course, but people said it was just the smell of money.

“Champion Paper was a chance for a lot of people in western North Carolina to move to a mill town where there were opportunities for schools for their kids, church and social life, movies.”

In 1999, the United Steelworkers union bought the mill from Champion for $200 million and renamed it Blue Ridge Paper.  Seven years later, New Zealand billionaire Graeme Hart’s Evergreen Packaging took over, then in 2020 merged with Pactiv. Hart still controls the business, a publicly traded company that has consistently notched losses and operated with heavy debt loads. Its customers have included Walmart, Burger King, and Whole Foods.

The mill’s loss stings, but Canton’s mayor remains hopeful. “After this place is cleaned up, we’ll be an economic super site,” Smathers says. “We have gas, rail, and the interstate between here and Asheville.” That proximity, speculates Salamido and others, could find Canton a bustling bedroom community to Asheville.

 “We can create a diverse economy,” Smathers adds, possibly landing light industry to replace the paper plant, and mixed-use housing, retail and outdoor recreation uses.

 “There’s still something to be said for making things.”

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