COURTLAND — International Paper’s decision Wednesday to close its Lawrence County operation will leave a devastating mark on the 1,100 plant workers and a county that already is one of the poorest in Alabama, officials said.
“This is not something we will get over anytime soon,” said Tony Stockton, executive director of the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board. “We will feel this for a long, long time.”
Workers gathered in small groups Wednesday morning to hear their jobs will be phased out during the next several months. Company officials said the plant will permanently close by late March, the end of the company’s first-quarter budget period.
An IP boxing facility in Decatur will not be affected by Wednesday’s announcement.
The Courtland mill is International Paper’s largest plant among its Printing and Communications Division, which produces paper products for copiers, printers, envelopes, forms, labels and similar materials. Company officials said the market for those products has steadily declined since 1999, with consumers utilizing electronic alternatives to handle banking, billing, filing and other routine business.
“We explored numerous business and repurposing options for the Courtland mill, but concluded that permanently closing the mill best positions the business for the future,” division Senior Vice President Tim Nicholls said in a statement.
As it did most IP workers and community leaders, Wednesday’s announcement surprised Ben Sneed, business agent for the United Steel Workers local, which represents about 500 workers at the plant. He said workers were “blindsided.”
“None of us saw it coming,” Sneed said. “We knew there was a decline in the use of paper products produced here, but this is the most efficiently run mill in the company. We have been told time after time that we have bailed out the company by our performance here. They just recently bragged on our mill for carrying the whole paper sector.
“Now, we hear this. It’s just devastating to the workers and the community. We’re still trying to comprehend what has happened and why.”
Sneed said he hopes other north Alabama employers will give strong consideration to hiring IP workers, whom he described as being “world class.”
The paper mill has been Lawrence County’s largest employer more than four decades. The operation began in 1971 as Champion International and had about 1,700 workers when it was purchased by IP in 2000. There now are 1,100 workers at the plant, and the Courtland plant has an annual payroll of $86 million, according to Tom Ryan, a spokesman at the company’s Memphis headquarters.
In comparison, Lawrence County schools employ the second-highest number of workers with 730.
Per capita income in Lawrence County is listed at $19,676 in the 2010 Census, about $3,800 below the state’s per capita income.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the workers and their families, especially those in mid-career and who are not old enough to retire,” Stockton said. “They’re hurting, and a lot of other people and businesses will be hurting. This will have a domino effect on our county, and it will be devastating. You can’t offset the loss of a business with the economic impact that IP has here.”
Company officials estimate the local economic impact of the mill to be $328 million annually.
State Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said the region is in a “dire situation” as a result of the plant closing. He called on Gov. Robert Bentley and Republicans, who make up the majority in the state Legislature, to work with IP officials to find a way to save the jobs.
“If the state of Alabama can spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring industry like Airbus to Mobile and Mercedes to Vance, why can’t we put a jobs package together for northwest Alabama?” Bedford said in a news release.
Hartselle resident Donnie Gilbert, who retired from International Paper, knows many workers at the mill.
“The first thing I thought about is all those guys who are going to be without a job, who I worked with for 17 years,” Gilbert said. “I’m sure it was a shock to all of them. I know it’s going to be devastating to them, and the impact on the economy is going to be huge.”
Gilbert said it’s hard to imagine such a mammoth structure as the mill sitting idle. He said the operation is so expansive that it produces part of its own electricity.
“It’s like its own city out there,” he said. “I’ve been all over that place. I remember it was intimidating when I first came there to work.”
Current employees said they have started contemplating their futures after their employment ends.
Lexington resident Randy Newton, who has worked at the plant for more than six years, said he and fellow employees will continue to work hard “for as long as we have jobs.” He said he and fellow workers were in shock and didn’t feel like eating lunch Wednesday.
“My stomach has been torn apart all day,” he said. “We felt we were set as long as we did our jobs, so we figured we had filled out our last application and put together our last resume. I just don’t know what happened, none of us do.
“Now we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do. One thing is for sure, our lifestyles will be changing. This is going to hurt us and this community a long time.”