First off, the closure of the Pactiv-Evergreen paper mill in Canton is not cause for celebration.
I know in some quarters folks have hailed the announcement last week that the mill would close after 115 years as a great opportunity to rid the area of a smelly, unattractive, industrial behemoth. Over the years, I’ve also fielded questions from readers asking why the state or the feds or somebody couldn’t shut that plant down, or at least eliminate the smell.
While I’m not a native myself, I just assumed these folks weren’t from around here, as the saying goes. Because they miss the point: That plant — bad smell and ugly looks included — has been the lifeblood of a community for over a century.
The Canton paper mill, which started as Champion Fibre Company in 1908 and has held several names since, is not pretty to look at, and it did turn the Pigeon River an ugly tea color for decades and spew a rotten egg witches’ brew of odors into the air. But the company also spent millions upon millions of dollars reducing that pollution over the years, albeit with some coercion at times.
But the main benefit of the mill has been employment. The mill employed generations of families in Haywood, Buncombe, Swain, and other counties, offering strong enough wages that those families could buy homes, keep food on the table, buy decent vehicles, and send kids to community colleges and universities.
It’s hard to exaggerate just how important Pactiv-Evergreen has been to the town of Canton and locals for the past century-plus. So, if the smell or the looks of the place offended you, well, “Tough noogies,” as I believe the economist John Maynard Keynes once famously said.
OK, I made that up, but really, tough noogies. Paper mills stink, and we’ve all survived.
My first thought when I heard the news was, “Damn, that’s a lot of people who are going to be out of a good-paying job.” More than a thousand people are going to be out of work, according to a Smoky Mountain News article on the closure, and those kinds of lost wages undoubtedly will have a ripple effect on the region.
“I don’t think you can overstate the immediate impact on local families and household income, which will then impact the Main Street businesses and small business owners where we spend those dollars,” Clark Duncan, senior vice president of economic development with the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, told me via email. “These impacts are regional just like the Evergreen workforce, and I’ve been heartened by the regional response I see coming together from public and private sector leaders.”
Duncan said his father-in-law retired from the mill back in the Champion Paper era, “so I understand the value of these jobs and how the impact of their loss will be felt in Canton and across the metro region.”
Evergreen pay averaged $80,000 a year
Nathan Ramsey, director of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board and a mountain native, described the closure as “incredibly significant,” noting the “impact of the mill is far greater than just the 1,200-plus workers employed in Haywood County.” The board’s territory covers Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Transylvania counties.
I asked Ramsey what this means for the laid-off workers, and he noted the region currently has the lowest unemployment rate in North Carolina and over 16,000 job openings.
“I’m not worried about the workers finding employment, but I’m definitely worried that some workers may need to take a big pay cut or they may need additional education/training,” Ramsey said. “The last major closure in our region was Continental (a brake parts manufacturer in Henderson County that employed about 300 people), and many of those workers actually found new jobs making more than their salary at Continental.”
Here’s the kicker: “Continental workers were paid well, but Evergreen jobs pay on average over $80,000,” Ramsey said.
That’s a good living in this area, considering the median household income in Haywood County as of 2021 was $52,063, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
You’re hard-pressed to find someone who lives in Haywood County who doesn’t have some kind of connection to the mill.
During my two-decades plus at the Citizen Times, I worked with Carole Terrell, a Canton resident and delightful all-around person, as well as a great newsroom clerk. Terrell, 55, was born and raised in Canton and still lives there.
Neither she nor her husband have worked at the mill, but Terrell’s father worked there, and she knows plenty of families who’ve put bread on the table with mill paychecks. Simply put, Terrell said, “tradition is also an important thing with the mill.”
“People are proud to work there because that’s where they’ve worked for generations: grandfather, father, son,” Terrell said. “I put together a photo gallery one time about Champion delivering Christmas baskets to people in need along with providing clothing and haircuts in the 1950s. Up until this past Christmas, they would put together hundreds of food boxes to distribute.”
The mill is just ingrained in life there, so yes, this closure stings way more than the plant smell ever irritated a passing tourist’s nose on I-40.
In its statement announcing the closure, Pactiv-Evergreen noted it “expects to close its Canton, North Carolina mill and its converting facility in Olmsted Falls, Ohio with operations at both facilities expected to end during the second quarter of 2023.” (On a side note, don’t get me started on Pactiv-Evergreen executives cashing out shares right before the closure announcement in what appears to be a callous money grab.)
I suspect Pactiv-Evergreen won’t be selling to a competitor, although rumors are swirling about various potential scenarios that could revive the plant. But for now, it looks like it’s going to shut down, as so many other heavy industrial manufacturing plants around here have.
Lots of other closures
I mentioned to Duncan and Ramsey that in my 28 years here, I’ve seen a lot of large manufacturing plants shut down — the DuPont x-ray film plant on the Henderson/Transylvania border, the Ecusta paper mill in Brevard, the BASF fiber plant in Enka, Beacon Blankets in Swannanoa, the Gerber juice and baby food plant in Arden in Buncombe County, and probably some others I couldn’t remember.
So I asked them if Pactiv-Evergreen’s closure was a death knell for manufacturing in our area, part of a tectonic shift away from hands-on, high labor production in the mountains.
Ramsey said, “Absolutely not.” He noted that Baxter Healthcare in McDowell County is the largest manufacturer in Western North Carolina, with more than 2,000 employees, and the mountains still have several manufacturing firms around 1,000 employees or above.
“The location of Pratt & Whitney, Jabil Healthcare, Emtelle, and many other manufacturing firms in our region, along with the expansion of System Logistics, Cummins Meritor, Lassonde, Elkamet and more is a clear sign manufacturing isn’t going away,” Ramsey said via email.
The $650-million Pratt & Whitney jet engine parts plant opened in south Buncombe last fall, and eventually should employ 800 people with an average annual salary of $68,400.
The direct annual wages for manufacturing in Buncombe and seven surrounding counties total $2.2 billion, and the total economic impact is $4.4 billion, according to data Ramsey provided from Lightcast, which analyzes the labor market.
Still, manufacturing has declined in the region since 1990, as companies moved operations to China, Mexico, and other countries. In 1990, the four-county Asheville Metropolitan Statistical Area (Buncombe, Haywood, Madison, and Henderson counties), had about 33,000 manufacturing workers, a number that had dropped to about 22,600 by December 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But Ramsey and Duncan remain bullish on manufacturing in the area, and they don’t view the closure of the Canton mill as a harbinger of more shutdowns to come.
“Recent history and the robust growth of manufacturing in the Asheville metro region would indicate this is not a shift away from manufacturing at all,” Duncan said, adding that it reflects a global economy that requires companies to value and invest in continuous improvement, technology, and training to remain competitive. “Given the strength and vitality of the Canton comeback in recent years, I am confident we will come together as we did after losses like Sonopress, Volvo Construction Equipment, and Continental in the past decade to reimagine the economic future of Canton.”
Canton, if you haven’t heard, has gotten to be a somewhat trendy place to live, in part because its well-made homes remain somewhat affordable, especially compared to Buncombe County and Asheville.
Ramsey pointed out that even without the Pactiv-Evergreen jobs, “we still have more manufacturing jobs in our region than we did in 2015.” Manufacturing remains “robust and growing” in our region, he said.
“Right now we have over 1,200 manufacturing job openings in the region, according to Lightcast,” Ramsey said. “The average manufacturing job in our region pays $71,781 per year and manufacturing is a strength of our region.”
Becoming more high-tech
Duncan says manufacturing jobs remain “the backbone of the WNC economy,” although they are constantly becoming more high-tech.
“Today these workplaces are more STEM and technology-oriented than at any time in our history,” Duncan said, using the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. “From Henderson to Mitchell County, manufacturing careers are one of the top earning opportunities in the region, they are attracting record-setting significant investment from local entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 firms alike and offer one of the strongest paths to education and economic mobility available to our residents.”
I hope some miracle comes along and the mill is reborn, the jobs preserved. Or maybe some incredible reuse of the enormous property will pop up.
But for now, the closure of this mill will leave a huge hole in the heart of Haywood County, and not just economically.
Terrell shared an observation that really stuck with me. I think it’ll stick with you, too.
“(This) may seem trivial next to job loss, but I will miss hearing the whistle and the trains rumbling in the distance,” Terrell told me via text message, noting the work shift whistles go off at 7:30 a.m., noon and 3:30 p.m. “I live about 1 mile from the mill, and those are sounds of home.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org