IP affects more than employees

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 11, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Susan Mingee can’t even recall all of the things International Paper mill employees have done to help Frazier Elementary in the past 15 years.

As a Partner in Education for the school, IP contributed money and resources for Frazier &045; but as important as those donations were, it has been the individual employees, day after day, who have made the most difference.

&uot;They didn’t just write a check,&uot; said Mingee, librarian at the school.

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That daily contact with IP’s employees makes the impact of the mill’s impending closure that much more personal for Mingee and many others in the Miss-Lou.

While the immediate impact of IP’s closure is on the 640 employees who will lose their jobs when the plant shuts down, the effects trickle down to others in the community &045; small businesses, nonprofits and schools &045; in different ways.

Many said this week they will be watching their numbers carefully over the next few months and make adjustments as needed.

&uot;We lost $100,000 &045; one-third of our budget &045; with IP’s announcement,&uot; said Monica Lynch, executive director of the United Way of the Miss-Lou. &uot;At the same time, some of our agencies saw their requests (for help) triple.

&uot;So when agencies are needing it the most, the money isn’t there,&uot; said Lynch, adding that the local United Way is brainstorming new ways to raise funds and make ends meet.

IP announced Jan. 23 it would close its 52-year-old Natchez mill by the middle of the year because of a poor market for the chemical cellulose it produces.

That does not include HB Zachry, which performs capital and maintenance work for IP and had more than 50 employees before the announcement. It also does not include 138 jobs lost last year when Natchez’s Johns Manville plant shut its doors.

Those closings affect nonprofits in ways the average citizen might not think about.

Meeting the needs

IP was not only one of the United Way’s biggest financial supporters. It also supplied volunteers for local agencies and even, along with HB Zachry, donated dozens of turkeys to nonprofits for the holidays, Lynch said.

And think about how many people an IP worker supports, she added.

If a worker is laid off, for example, he might not have the money to pay his grandmother’s housing or utility bills any longer &045; forcing her to call a nonprofit for help.

But impact trickles down even further. The Natchez Council on Aging, for example, uses some of its funds &045; which come partly from the United Way &045; to help fund programs at the Natchez Senior Citizen Multipurpose Center.

&uot;They support our nutrition programs, adult day care, transportation for the elderly and disabled, health fairs, even our Christmas party,&uot; said Sabrina Bartley, who directs the center.

&uot;But what concerns me is that (an IP worker) may have a sitter or caregiver or someone to come in and cook meals for an elderly person in their life,&uot; she said. &uot;If (the worker) moves out of town to find work, that (elderly) person must still be taken care of and still needs a hot meal.&uot;

The Council on Aging is watching their funding carefully &045; and, as a result, so is the Senior Center. &uot;We’re looking at ways to maintain the same level of services Š while anticipating that the need will grown,&uot; Bartley said.

Some are moving away

Not all agencies are seeing a rise in help requests that they can attribute to the IP announcement. Capt. Geraldine Martin of the Salvation Army said she believes that is because many have already moved out of the area for jobs.

&uot;Most of the people in need are leaving the area, I believe,&uot; Martin said. &uot;But if they’re moving out of town, the money (that could be donating to charity) is also moving out of town.&uot;

Although exact figures weren’t available as of press time, that includes United Way allocations as well as Christmas kettle and mail appeal funds that will not be coming in, Martin said.

That does not count the Angel Tree donations the nonprofit will lose when IP closes its doors.

&uot;People are going to give less because they are hanging on to more money,&uot; Martin said. &uot;They’ve got to have roofs over their heads.&uot;

The Salvation Army and its board are still mulling over ways to cut costs where possible without cutting the services that are needed the most.

&uot;The Salvation Army won’t leave the area unless, once our program changes are implemented, we’re not able to operate in a fiscally responsible way,&uot; Martin said.

But nonprofits are not the only ones feeling the effects of IP’s announcement.

The impact on schools

Pat Sanguinetti, headmaster of Cathedral School, said 34 children from 22 families will be affected by the closing of IP. Of those, he predicts at least 10 students will not be returning for the 2003-2004 school year.

At the same time, fewer new students are registering. Case in point &045; 33 kindergartners were registered for the next school year as of Friday. They would usually expect 50.

&uot;So you’re looking at 15 students per classroom &045; good for (student-teacher ratios), but not when you’re trying to make ends meet,&uot; Sanguinetti said.

&uot;We’re looking at eventually having to cut positions and expenses where we can,&uot; he said.

So far, that has included moving one teacher to another position, eliminating one position due to attrition and, soon, eliminating one or two non-teaching positions, such as custodians.

At Frazier and other Natchez-Adams Schools, the closure of IP means the potential for losing students but also losing volunteers and donations from employees and the company.

Mingee, the Frazier librarian, recounted just a handful of ways IP and its employees have helped over the past 15 years &045; from workers serving as tutors and guest readers or working to build a playground to the company’s donation of teaching materials and other equipment. IP workers also conducted fire safety demonstrations and helped mentor the students.

&uot;That group was always out there doing something, building something,&uot; said Millicent Mayo, public relations director for the school district. &uot;They were playing Santa or playing the Easter bunny. Š I just can’t tell you the things people helped with.&uot;

The impending closure of IP has impacted education in other ways as well. Copiah-Lincoln Community College’s Natchez campus is working with displaced employees to find the retraining programs that are right for them.

That process started when Co-Lin officials were part of a Rapid Response team that traveled to the mill following the announcement to brief workers on available benefits, including training.

&uot;We’re already starting to see some people come in about going to school&uot; in academic as well as vocation-technical programs, said Dr. Ronnie Nettles, dean of Co-Lin’s Natchez campus.

Some are Co-Lin alumni who are returning to brush up their skills or try a different field of study altogether, he said.

At the same time, the funds the campus gets from Adams County could decrease by 20 percent or more due to the IP closing and the resulting loss in tax revenues to the county, Nettles said.

But the training Co-Lin is providing to IP workers is, for the most part, covered by funding from WIN Job Centers, he added.

Another change Co-Lin has seen due to the announcement is an increase in &uot;non-traditional&uot; students.

Therefore, the college plans to hold, later this month, a college prep workshop for adults &045; an orientation to college life, programs and terminology.

A buyer’s market

As families move, due to IP and the economy in general, they are selling their houses &045; and having to accept lower prices for them, said local Realtor Charlotte Copeland.

&uot;There are just under 300 (houses) on the market now, where usually you’d see 200 to 250 at the most,&uot; Copeland said. &uot;I’ve been in this business 20 years, and this is different from anything I’ve ever experienced.&uot;

At the same time, people who might be looking to buy their first house or upgrade to a better home are taking longer to make those decisions due to economic uncertainty.

&uot;There’s that fear,&uot; Copeland said.

But all is not doom and gloom, she added. The other side of the coin is that homebuyers who do make up their minds will have their choice of homes at lower prices and at a time when interest rates are also low.

&uot;It’s a buyer’s market,&uot; she said.

In addition, some businesses have products that, despite economic woes, people just cannot do without.

&uot;So far, we haven’t seen an effect (from IP),&uot; said Frances Poole, an associate with the Sears appliance and electronics center in Natchez. &uot;But with the things we sell, if you have to have it, you have to have it.&uot;

A bright side

A person whose refrigerator or stove has died has to replace it immediately, for example.

&uot;We’ve got mowers and Weed Eaters, and you’ve got to keep your yard clean,&uot; Poole said. &uot;We’ve got televisions, and no one’s going to give up TV, especially when you can put it on your Sears card.&uot;

One might expect to see people getting the last few miles out of their cars rather than buying new ones.

Brad Yarbrough, general sales manager at Natchez Ford Lincoln Mercury, expected a 5- to 10-percent decrease in business following the IP announcement.

&uot;But I haven’t seen it,&uot; Yarbrough said. &uot;It’s been a surprise &045; a pleasant surprise.&uot;

The key, he said, &uot;is to stay focused on your business Š and to stay positive &045; not to let outside (factors) influence you. Your attitude can be your savior. It can also be your demise.&uot;

And John Gray, headmaster of Adams County Christian School, said that while 31 students are linked to IP, enrollment is actually up from this time last year.

&uot;Actually, it’s better than it has been in the last several years,&uot; he said.

Why is that? Gray believes that many families are still on severance pay and may want to stay in the area until they see if another industrial prospect pans out.

&uot;I believe we’re not really going to feel the effects of this (announcement) until probably December,&uot; Gray said.