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Mill revival gives Maine community new hope

Chris Morin prepared to move an 1,800-pound paper roll. He is among about 200 employees back at work at the Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket, Maine.

Photos by Joel Page for The Boston Globe

Chris Morin prepared to move an 1,800-pound paper roll. He is among about 200 employees back at work at the Great Northern Paper Co. mill in East Millinocket, Maine.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — East Millinocket is known as “the town that paper made.” It was born with the mill, lived for generations because of it and then withered as the plant slowly downsized and, in 2010, choked to a halt.

It was an agonizing decline. The population shrank by more than a third over the course of a decade, and many of those who stayed went elsewhere to work; the headlights on the road to Bangor, 65 minutes south, begin streaming at 3:30 in the morning. Many didn’t find work at all. And with a mill-sized hole in its tax base, the town couldn’t fund or fix its schools. Everything was tied to the mill, and mills that make paper for reading do not reopen in America. But then this one did.

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The unlikely revival of East Millinocket and its Great Northern Paper Co. mill began when a buyer, who didn’t know anything about paper, and the people of the town, who know everything about paper, threw their lot in together and took a leap of faith.

There is “new hope and new life,” says Ginger Klimas, whose husband worked in the paper room for 40 years. “When it went down, everyone said it was over. We’re done,” said Klimas, who works at an inn near Interstate 95. “Now there’s a cautious optimism. We see the writing on the wall. Paper is going to be a defunct thing. But now the wall might not be here for a while.”

The partnership that brought hope back happened in October 2011 after Cate Street Capital, an alternative energy investment firm in Portland, inherited the mill when it bought a long-shuttered Great Northern Paper mill in neighboring Millinocket. That mill will be converted to a plant to create torrefied wood for fuel. Richard Cyr, a guy with a sales-and-marketing background who was tapped by Cate Street to run Great Northern Paper, thought he saw possibilities to revive papermaking in East Millinocket. But he knew it was going to take a lot of persuasion. Previous corporate raiders had stripped the mill, separated it from its lucrative dams, and then taken off.

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“There was a lot of psychological stuff that had to happen to get them to bring their heads back up so they could believe that it was possible, and we weren’t like everyone else,” he said.

Cyr wanted to fire up one of the two gigantic papermaking machines again, if the union and the town would let the company do it for less money.

When he first met with the plant’s laid-off workers, it was not an easy sell.

“I said, ‘There’s no reason for me to sit here and threaten you with closure. You know what that means.’ I wanted us to aspire to greatness together, rather than just assume that we will fail. I really, really drilled home in them that this was their mill.”

He preached the idea that the needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few, and said he was able to remove some people from their senior positions by getting the workforce to believe in that. “As a result, it changed a culture that had been ingrained in union rights and seniority.”

But the hard sell was that the workers would make less money, and the mill would pay just a fraction of the taxes that it had before. Each option was deemed far better than nothing, and so the giant machine named Katahdin, for the great mountain just to the north, began to roll again.

The mill’s sprawling complex, down a short hill from the small downtown, along the banks of the Penobscot River, is a behemoth of industry. In winter, the exhalations of steam are grabbed by the arctic air to create a giant swan-white cloud that looms over the town. It might be menacing if it wasn’t a symbol of hope here. The cloud is something locals like to bring up when they talk about the mill. The town without it is a noticeably different place.

Last summer, the mill got a contract from Random House to make paper for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” the best-selling trilogy famous for steamy eroticism. They’ve had a good laugh about that one in town, but that Random House contract for nearly 3,000 tons of bright white stock allowed the mill to fire up the second huge machine and put more than 30 people back to work.

There are now a little over 200 employees working at the mill. During the great days, there were more than 4,000 between this mill and its sister in Millinocket. But for those 200-odd employees, the one thing that remains the same is the art of papermaking, something they take immense pride in: soupy pulp made with the timber of the North Woods churns at the “wet end” of the paper machines, which are the size of a hotel, and it is then squeezed through a series of rollers, each the size of the Fenway tarp, until a crisp white sheet comes out the “dry end.” There, a worker tears sheets to hold against a cheek, the way they’ve been checking moisture in this plant for generations.

Cyr, who is now chief executive of Great Northern Paper, sold himself to the town as a partner in the deal, and people in town and the workers seem to think he’s holding up his end.

“So far, Cate Street has done way more than they ever said they would,” says Clint Linscott, who owns an auto repair shop in town and is chairman of the Board of Selectmen. “But the mood in town depends on who you ask. The older people are worried about taxes.”

The mill now pays just about $700,000 in taxes annually, down from the $2 million the previous owners had paid, and there are huge town budget holes to be closed.

“If you talk to the kids in the schools, there’s a lot who want to stay here after graduation, but without jobs at the mill, they go to college. We’ve gone from 2,800 people to 1,700 people in town in a hurry,” Linscott said.

There are big questions facing the town. Even with some measure of prosperity, the expensive papermaking process now competes with the click of a button as a delivery-mechanism for information, so the steam cloud will disappear again. The town has until then to figure out its future.

For now, Selina Vaness, the head wood handler who has worked at the plant for 34 years, says it’s hard to explain just how much the town appreciates having a tiny bit of something when residents were convinced there was nothing to be had.

“Hopefully, we’re headed in the right direction. Everyone’s giving it an honest effort. A lot of places would have given up by now. Cate Street says it’s here for the duration. And we’re here for the duration.” Now all they can do, she says, is work hard, and believe.

But there are concerns even about keeping the mill running until its time is up. Those hired back are older, and there are no young people learning to hold paper to their cheek at the end of the papermaking line. Most locals disappear from the North Woods after high school. “This is a great place to raise a family, but our kids are moving away to have their kids,” says Dan Byron, chairman of the local school board. “There’s no base.”

Inside the mill on a recent January day, with the windchill bringing the temperature outside close to minus 30, workers in T-shirts were tending to the glowing behemoth that is Katahdin. The wood went in one end; reading paper came out the other. Just as it always has been.

Next to it, Penobscot, the other machine, was down for repairs. It is only running sporadically, based on demand. The town would like to see it back to 24/7 operation. But for now, the town mantra is that anything is better than nothing.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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