Local officials pledge to work together to help economy

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 24, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Miss-Lou officials, reeling from the news Thursday that International Paper will close its Natchez mill, were nevertheless looking to the future &045; and what they can do to aid the area’s economy.

&uot;If there ever was a wakeup call, this is it,&uot; said Lynwood Easterling, president of the Adams County Board of Supervisors. &uot;We need a lot of prayer for our community.&uot;

For Easterling &045; who &uot;grew up&uot; with IP because his father moved to Natchez with the company &045; news of the impending closure was hard to take. But, like other local officials, he pledged to work hard to bring new industry to town.

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&uot;We’ve got to get together and say, ‘Now what do we do?’&uot; Easterling said. &uot;And let’s don’t just be talkers; let’s be doers.&uot;

Natchez Mayor F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith, who spoke with mill Manager Steve Olsen Thursday morning, said he understands the closing is simply due to economic factors.

&uot;It’s really a corporate decision that they (IP) don’t want to stay in that product line and don’t want to make capital improvements&uot; to the Natchez mill, Smith said.

And with IP attempting to sell the plant for 18 months, Smith said the possibility of a mill closing was &uot;always in the back of our minds.&uot;

But senior management at the mill had indicated up until the announcement that the mill was &uot;going fine,&uot; Smith said.

Even as of Thursday’s announcement, Smith said he understands that the plant will continue at 80 percent of its capacity until it shuts down in the middle of this year.

Still, a closing would be devastating to employees and their families as well as suppliers and vendors that depend on doing business with the plant, Smith said.

With that in mind Smith, who is attending a conference in Washington with mayors from throughout the nation, spent most of the day calling senators, congressmen and state officials to ask for assistance.

Smith is also proposing an employee buyout of the plant, if feasible. &uot;I don’t want to just sit still, knowing the impact this could potentially have &045; I want to explore every option,&uot; Smith said.

&uot;I’m looking at trying to sit down in the next week or 10 days with all the stakeholders about this thing. Other alternatives, in my opinion, are very slim,&uot; he said.

The news of IP’s closure came a day before Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was scheduled to come to Natchez for an &uot;announcement&uot; he alluded to during a visit about a week ago.

In a statement, the governor &045; who will speak at the courthouse at 9:30 a.m. &045; said he is concerned about the closure.

&uot;I am deeply concerned about the impact of today’s announcement on the employees, their families and the entire community,&uot; Musgrove said. &uot;Southwest Mississippi has been hit hard by the national recession, and the workers at IP are the latest victims. As governor, I will continue to fight for jobs in the face of this national recession, not only for the 640 workers at IP but for the whole community and the entire state.&uot;

Like many in the community, local officials were caught off-guard by the announcement, although IP had had troubles in recent years.

&uot;With IP trying to streamline their process, make it more cost-effective, things were looking promising,&uot; said Mike Ferdinand, executive director of the Natchez-Adams County Economic Development Authority. &uot;There were still cost issues, but this was unexpected.&uot;

Ferdinand and other community leaders &045; including the chamber, city and county &045; had already been planning a February meeting to discuss how they can pool their resources into an alliance dedicated to a strategic plan for economic development.

&uot;Now, more than ever, it’s critical that we cultivate that plan for this community,&uot; Ferdinand said.

Adams County Supervisor Virginia Salmon, too, was trying to stay positive despite the &uot;dismal&uot; news.

&uot;I’m heartsick, as I’m sure everybody is,&uot; she said. &uot;My first thought is what it does to the total economy.&uot;

But Salmon was already looking ahead at what she and other supervisors can do to help the economy &045; and she pointed out that the closure is not the fault of IP employees.

&uot;No one can be held in blame here,&uot; she said, referring to the fact that market conditions were the downfall of the plant. &uot;This is another of the general economic conditions.&uot;

Natchez-Adams County Chamber of Commerce Director Fred Middleton said his &uot;heart goes out&uot; to those who have lost jobs and to their families.

&uot;First of all it’s hard to believe that this day has come,&uot; Middleton said. &uot;IP has been such a great corporate citizen. So many people have had an opportunity to work there, and so many families have benefited.&uot;

Middleton &045; who quickly estimated about a $1 billion negative economic impact from the closure &045; agreed that the community needs to work together as it moves forward.

He encouraged residents to buy locally, especially now.

&uot;It goes back to times of tragedy,&uot; he said. &uot;A family pulls together. That’s what we have to do, make sure Natchez and Adams County and its citizens are mindful of local vendors. That will be the stabilizing factor.&uot;

Natchez has a need for new industries &045; as evidenced by recent years’ announcements by Titan, Johns Manville and IP &045; and has some major selling points &045; trained and trainable labor, available properties, said Alderwoman Joyce Arceneaux.

Therefore, local officials need to follow every industrial lead they can get their hands on, no matter how big or small, including possible spinoffs from Madison County’s Nissan plant, she said.

&uot;Surely we can retool our thinking to attract 21st-century jobs,&uot; Arceneaux said. &uot;We need to do everything we can to get new jobs. We need to get busy.&uot;

&uot;We’ve got to do something, and do it quick,&uot; said Alderman Ricky Gray, is unity.

While Gray said he realizes the tough times that are ahead, especially for IP families, he added that &uot;maybe this is what it’s going to take to unite this community. United we stand, divided we fall.&uot;

Alderman and Mayor Pro-Tem David Massey said he was as &uot;blindsided&uot; by the news Thursday morning as everyone else. He was also saddened, especially since his brother-in-law and best friend are among those employed there.

&uot;How do you adjust your life when you’re 50 years old or older to find something else? I don’t know the answer,&uot; said Massey, who blames a post-NAFTA migration of jobs for much of Natchez’s job loss.

&uot;All I know is that IP has been a wonderful industry for Natchez for a lot of years,&uot; said Massey, who described himself as being in shock. &uot;It’s a sad day for Natchez.&uot;

Across the river, Concordia Parish officials knew the impact IP has on their communities as well.

&uot;It’s a devastating announcement to our whole community,&uot; said Teresa Dennis, economic industrial development director for the parish. &uot;We have a lot of residents from Concordia Parish who work at International Paper. It will touch every aspect of our economy,&uot;

She said community leaders will need to increase their efforts to bring other industry to the area. She suggested on of the ways the Economic Industrial Development office can help is by recruiting business into the Ferriday Industrial Park.

&uot;I can tell you we’re going to work very hard in Concordia Parish to help the area recover. That’s all we can do,&uot; she said.

Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland said he knows of at lease 40 families himself who would be affected by the closing. He added that the economic ramifications go beyond the paper mill itself.

&uot;This is going to affect our schools, hospitals, grocery stores and right on down the line,&uot; he said.

Copeland said he would like local, state and federal officials to sit down and discuss incentives to keep the paper company in business here. Copeland said he has a trip to Washington, D.C., planned in February and he suggested that area mayors get together and plan a trip there as well to speak with Mississippi and Louisiana representatives about the issue.

&uot;We need to see if there are any economic incentives that we can offer IP or any other company that buys them,&uot; he said. &uot;I think there’s hope.&uot;