State EDA officials responding

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 24, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; State officials met with officials of International Paper’s Natchez mill Friday to start the process of getting laid-off workers into new jobs and marketing the mill’s skilled workforce to prospective industries.

IP announced Thursday that it would close its 52-year-old Natchez mill by the middle of the year, leaving 640 people out of work, due to a poor market for the chemical cellulose it produces.

Although some local officials have spoken of an employee buyout of the plant, IP officials have said the company is seeking to get out of the chemical cellulose business altogether.

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Natchez is the only plant that makes that product. And the facility’s equipment is so highly specialized that it would be cost-prohibitive for the company to retool to make other products, mill Manager Steve Olsen has said.

But there is a silver lining. A highly trained workforce such as the Natchez mill’s can be a powerful incentive for a variety of companies to locate in the Miss-Lou, said Bob Rhorlack, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority.

Although IP is still compiling information on the demographics and skills of its workforce, at first glance &uot;the statistics are fantastic on this group,&uot; said Rhorlack who, along with Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, met with IP officials Friday morning at the mill. &uot;That’s a huge carrot for a company.&uot;

Once the information is compiled, the MDA will use it to launch a marketing campaign to entice industries to the area, Rhorlack said.

And the agency plans to target a variety of companies, not just cellulose producers, to help replace the mill, whose employees ranged from electricians to maintenance employees to millwrights.

&uot;We will look at all viable alternatives&uot; for making up the lost jobs, Musgrove said.

&uot;We’re asking, ‘Who can use those skills?’ We’re looking at an extremely broad field&uot; of prospects, Rhorlack said.

At Friday’s meeting at the mill, the state’s Rapid Response team offered to return as soon as possible to begin offering its services to the mill’s employees. The team provides information on education and training, job searches and job placement assistance, resumes, unemployment and children’s health insurance and starting a business, among other assistance.

In the coming weeks, &uot;we’ll meet with all the employees in groups and individually&uot; to determine what assistance is needed, said William Lott, director of MDA’s Employment Training Division.

Rapid Response representatives are scheduled to return to the mill in about two weeks, &uot;so this (visit) is just a preliminary step,&uot; Olsen said Friday.

Meanwhile, Olsen continued to work with international representatives of the mill’s four unions &045; and no fewer than seven union locals &045; to schedule the start of severance negotiations.

&uot;Starting next week may be a little optimistic, but the sooner the better,&uot; Olsen said, adding that as of Friday, the mill’s workers were &uot;still a little shell-shocked.&uot;