BERLIN, N.H. (AP) – “Help Wanted” signs have gone up at the pulp and paper mills in Berlin and Gorham, just two years after the mills shut down for nine months.

That represents a tremendous turnaround for a region that was economically devastated when American Tissue filed for bankruptcy in September 2001.

More than 850 workers were laid off when the mills shut down. But former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the state’s congressional delegation and local leaders aggressively sought a buyer, and Fraser Papers of Stamford, Conn., stepped in.

Before reopening the mills in June 2002, Fraser Papers negotiated with Local 75 of the Paper, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union to eliminate 140 jobs.

The local had about 655 members working at the mills before they shut down. Today, about 525 are back at work, and by June the mills had re-hired everyone on the callback list who didn’t retire, find other work or move away.

“I didn’t think this would happen as quickly as it did,” said Eddie DeBlois, president of Local 75. “It’s definitely a far cry from a couple of years ago. I’m glad that everyone had a chance to go back.”

Now the mills are seeking about 30 more workers and Fraser Papers is advertising both locally and in other mill towns, including Jay, Millinocket, and Rumford, Maine.

About 230 people have applied, said Gregg Cyr, human resources director for Fraser Papers.

Meanwhile, the North Country Workers Assistance Center, which opened to help the laid-off workers a few months after the mills shut down, will close its doors Oct. 1.

The center’s director, Jayne Dewitt, says it is no longer needed.

“I feel really good about what was accomplished here,” she said. “It was a group effort. A lot of things were done in the community that say a lot for the North Country.”

The center was funded by $4.5 million grant from the federal Department of Labor, obtained with the help of Southern New Hampshire Services, the AFL-CIO, Local 75, and the state’s congressional delegation.

The grant paid for counseling and vocational training.

Dewitt said many of the rank-and-file employees were people in their late 40s who thought they would work at the mills until they retired. Most were ill-prepared to seek other work.

“Most people had either graduated from high school or did not get their diploma and went right into the mill,” she said. “They had never been without health care or insurance. They had earned a good living; they were never behind on their bills. It was devastating.”

Fewer than a half-dozen chose to relocate, because of deep family ties to the area, she said.

Many were happy to return when the mills reopened, but some ended up pursuing different dreams, she and DeBlois said. One woman who had always wanted to teach decided to sell her house and go back to school. She will have her teaching credentials in six or eight months.

“A lot of people ended up doing something that they had always wanted to do,” DeBlois said. “They probably never would have taken that chance if the mill hadn’t shut down.”

Former mill workers Ray Blanchette and Johnny Barron, both avid outdoorsmen, worked for 10 months with a financial advisor to buy their own store in Errol, a center for fishing, hunting and snowmobiling.

“I have no regrets,” said Blanchette. “With all the obstacles we had to overcome, I think it was meant to be.”

AP-ES-09-21-03 1617EDT

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