BUCKSPORT — While there are many questions and few solid answers now swirling about the future of the Verso paper mill and the 500-plus people employed there, lots of folks in Bucksport can agree that their community is at a crossroads.

Many vacant storefronts dotted the business block of Bucksport long before last week’s announcement that unless a buyer is found, the paper mill will close by the end of the year.

“Eighty percent of the money that’s made here is spent somewhere else,” BookStacks owner Andy Lacher said this week, adding that he does not anticipate the mill closure having a significant effect on his business. “There are too many empty stores. We were suffering while [the mill] was thriving.”

He said that geographically, Bucksport is in the middle of everything — about 18 miles from Ellsworth, Bangor, Belfast, Blue Hill and Castine. U.S. Route 1 brings carload after carload of tourists right next to downtown Bucksport during the busy summer season. In fact, the town’s new, unofficial slogan, is “Bucksport: Center of the Known Universe.” The motto was embedded last spring in the town’s Waterfront Walkway, which stretches along the banks of the Penobscot River and provides dazzling views of Fort Knox in Prospect and the Penobscot Narrows Bridge.

However, Lacher and others said that being an easy drive to other places has not always benefited the town.

“Bucksport is the bedroom,” he said. “People who live here are just going to go somewhere else.”

He and others said this week they hope Bucksport will emulate the success of Belfast, which has reinvented itself as a diverse business and arts-focused community after catastrophically losing shoemaking and chicken-processing industries in the 1980s.

Belfast Councilor Mike Hurley said this week that his city’s unemployment rate shot up to nearly 18 percent after those industries collapsed.

“It was tough times,” he recalled. “When these crises happen, there is a great division of opinion about what to do. You’re going to have a spirited community debate about it. The reality is, I don’t think you replace a giant paper mill. If no one comes along to take it over, you’re not going to come up with a new thing that will pay 45 percent of your property tax.”

“This is a challenge. But long-term, they will be able to reinvent themselves,” he said.

A group of Bucksport business owners, town officials and others with reinvention on their minds met Wednesday night at the Alamo Theatre on Main Street. First, they watched the documentary “Reviving Freedom Mill,” about one man’s quixotic and ultimately successful effort to rebuild a rotting gristmill in rural Waldo County. Then, they talked about what Bucksport could do to revive itself. The event had been planned before the announcement that the Verso mill would close, but the dozens of people in the audience clearly had the paper mill on their minds.

They do not believe the hardscrabble fate of other former mill towns around Maine and New England needs to be Bucksport’s future, too.

“Yes, we had a catastrophe last week, but we still have the community,” said Rep. Dick Campbell, R-Orrington.

When participants were asked to make a list of Bucksport’s assets, the ideas flew from around the room. They included the picturesque waterfront, hiking trails, history, the people and the strong sense of community, the longevity and stability of residents, the creativity of residents, the low cost of housing, location, low crime rate, low property taxes, the Alamo Theatre, the “really beautiful schools,” the working farms and forests, and the walkable downtown.

“The sense of history here is phenomenal,” Jane Lafleur of the Camden-based Friends of Midcoast Maine, who moderated the event, said. She said she took a few moments before the meeting to explore the community. “Amazing houses. Amazing, tree-lined streets. For someone who hasn’t turned left at the lights a lot, it was incredible.”

Although the community members present did not make any firm decisions that night about how to get more people to get off Route 1 and into their town, the discussion was a good start, they said.

“It was terrific,” resident Christopher Johnson said after the event. “It’s brought people together that are anxious to get going. It started the process of communication. The mill has been a great, 84-year ride, but we’re excited now. We have to embrace change. It’s coming.”

Verso mill closing has ripple effects beyond Bucksport

BUCKSPORT — It has been a week since David Milan, the economic development director for the town of Bucksport, was blindsided by the news that the Verso Paper mill will close in December.

“We were sucker-punched,” he said of the Oct. 1 announcement that caught town officials and millworkers alike off-guard.

Milan said he didn’t sleep well that first night, worried about what the closure of the mill, which pays about 44 percent of the town’s property taxes, would mean for the future of Bucksport. But by the next morning, he said things felt different.

“The next day, I said, ‘What the heck am I upset about?’” Milan said this week, adding that his first concern is for the soon-to-be displaced workers and their families. “One door closes and another opens. You always plan for the worst and hope for the best. We’ve planned for this. I’ve rolled up my sleeves. We’re moving forward.”

Town officials in Bucksport over the years have set aside about $8 million in a rainy day fund to soften the blow of potential layoffs, and since the closure announcement, their mantra has seemed to be that it isn’t time to panic.

Meanwhile, a few miles away from downtown Bucksport, that optimism seemed a little harder to come by for a self-employed Orland man who makes his living harvesting and hauling spruce and fir to the Verso Paper mill. Tom Pelkey, a 57-year-old former millworker who “pretty much walked out of school and walked into the mill,” is contemplating his new, tougher financial reality.

“It’s definitely not going to help any,” he said Wednesday of Verso’s imminent closure. “I sell them a lot of wood. … I’ve invested in a lot of equipment. I’ve got several bunchers and skidders and delimbers. I’ve got so much invested in it.”

The mill closure will affect his family in other ways, too. His son-in-law works there and has a young and growing family and a house he bought just a year and a half ago.

“He’s a good kid, and he’s a good worker. He’s just getting started,” Pelkey said of his son-in-law. “We have a good workforce and people that are dedicated. Then this [crap] happens. … Wood is just like your garden. It needs to be managed. It needs to be used. It’s a shame we’re losing so much of our heritage.”

‘Everything is changing daily’

One thing that seems certain, in a week of changes and questions, is that reverberations from the planned Dec. 1 closure of the paper mill will continue to spread throughout the Bucksport area and beyond. The mill has dominated the town’s economy and skyline since it was built in 1930, and it now produces coated paper for magazines and also speciality paper products such as prescription pads and sugar packets.

Some of the impacts seem obvious — the loss, for example, of the good-paying jobs held by about 500 of the 570 mill employees. Because the mill needs to be decommissioned and the associated power plant will remain open, not all the Verso workers in Bucksport are slated to lose their jobs, Verso spokesman Bill Cohen said Thursday.

If a buyer isn’t found for the mill, municipal officials said that Bucksport is likely to have some hard decisions to make in the future, as the town figures out how to balance its budget with much less help from its largest single taxpayer. Also, there are open questions for suppliers, including the contractors and vendors who work for the mill but are not directly employed by Verso, and Pan Am Railways, which hauls goods in and out of the mill. Such entities would be directly impacted by a closure of the mill.

“That’s a noise you won’t hear so often,” Bucksport resident Christopher Johnson said Wednesday night, as a mournful-sounding train whistle echoed through the quiet streets of his town.

But other impacts are more oblique. The closure of the mill and disappearance of those jobs surely will have an effect on local businesses, from the convenience store closest to the Verso gates to the automobile dealerships a half-hour up the Penobscot River in Bangor where some of the millworkers purchased their cars and trucks.

The millworkers come from all over the northeastern portion of the state, Cohen said, with about half living in Bucksport, Orland, Verona and Prospect. But some of the workers travel as much as 75 miles one way to get to the mill.

“They come from Hancock, Piscataquis, Washington, Waldo, Knox and Penobscot [counties],” he said, adding that the hourly workers’ average age is 54.

Also, people such as Pelkey, who cut or haul wood for the mill, will be affected. The ripple effects will be felt at Eastern Maine Community College, where a new training program launched last fall to prepare workers for the papermaking industry has eight students enrolled — each of whom anticipated securing a job at Verso upon completion of the two-year program.

The questions, and possible extended effects from the closure, encompass many areas — even as seemingly remote to the Bucksport mill as the future of Toddy Pond, Alamoosook Lake and Silver Lake. Verso owns the water rights to each of them, Milan said, and could potentially remove their dams, which would have major downstream consequences.

“My big concern right now, beyond the families of the millworkers, is the long-term impact [of the closure],” Milan said. “Right now, I feel like the guy on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ with the spinning plates. Everything is changing daily, and I’m trying to keep the plates from dropping on my head.”

‘This community is not going to die.’

Dale Tozier, who owns Tozier’s Bucksport Variety on Route 15, said this week that Verso closing will no doubt have a significant effect on his business. Millworkers come in before and after their shift changes to pick up coffee, newspapers, sandwiches and more.

“It’ll be very widespread, without 570 people coming into the town every day, making very good wages,” he said. “Especially on this end of town. We’re not on Route 1. We’re not a tourist destination on this end. It’ll be a blow.”

Tozier said it’s not the first time he’s gone through a mill closure as an owner of a nearby business. Tozier’s Market on South Main Street in Brewer is just up the street from Eastern Fine Paper, which closed in 2004 and left 430 people without jobs.

“It hurts,” he said. “But this community is not going to die. This is an old community. A strong community. There’s a lot of pride in this community. We’re survivors — we’ll survive this.”

One bright spot amid the gloomy economic news from Verso’s planned closure is the fact that Maine’s Job Bank this week hit an all-time high number of available jobs, according to Julie Rabinowitz of the Maine Department of Labor. While some of the listings are for seasonal employment, a lot of them are for full-time work with good benefits at places including Bath Iron Works and Bar Harbor’s Jackson Laboratory.

“We have had a tremendous response from employers who have open positions,” she said, referring to companies that contacted the department after the Bucksport announcement, specifically seeking to hire displaced millworkers.

The department’s Rapid Response Team met earlier this week with Verso officials and has started to schedule resume writing workshops and other activities aimed at helping the workers.

“For some people, it’s still settling in. They’re still a little in shock,” Rabinowitz said of the millworkers. “What we want to do is empower each individual worker to make the decision that’s best for them. Sometimes that’s training for a new career. Sometimes it’s get a new job. If they’re on the verge of retirement, it might be retirement.”

People in the Bucksport area said this week that they believe in their community and in its ability to get through the tough times to come. The closure of the mill is major, but it won’t define their town, they said.

“This town has seen a lot of challenges over the years and has overcome them very well,” James Bradney of the Bucksport Bay Healthy Communities Coalition said. “I’m not minimizing the hardship that many residents will feel in the near term. It’s going to impact all aspects of the community in a very serious way, in the near future. In the long term, this is a very close-knit community that pulls together in caring for our own.”

— Abigail Curtis, Bangor Daily News

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