A new beginning

Published 10:33 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Mill: The International Paper mill, seen here in a photo from when it was still operating, will reopen and create fluff pulp products. About 213 will be hired for the new work, officials said Tuesday.

By Dale Liesch

The Tidewater News

FRANKLIN — International Paper announced Tuesday it plans to spend $83 million to repurpose a portion of its shuttered mill in Franklin, creating 213 jobs.

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Production at the paper mill, which eliminated about 1,100 jobs when it closed nearly a year ago, is expected to start up in mid-2012 as a fluff pulp mill.

“You should start seeing activity fairly soon with the ramping up of equipment,” said Donna Wadsworth, communications manager for IP in Ticonderoga, N.Y. “We’ll be ramping up to full staffing by next spring.”

Peter O’Keefe, a principal with CMI, said Franklin Pellets, LLC, is still looking at the facility for its wood pellet manufacturing operation. Plans for the proposed operation were announced last month.

“We’re still in the middle of our process,” O’Keefe said. “We’re in the due diligence phase and nothing has been finalized.”

IP continues to actively evaluate additional repurposing options for the Franklin site with third-party partners, according to a statement released Tuesday.

Wadsworth said the jobs in the fluff pulp mill would be manufacturing and production jobs similar to ones used before the facility shut down last year. Pay would be competitive and hiring would be based on skills.

“We have wonderfully skilled people in the area,” Wadsworth said. “We look forward to working with them. We will be hiring on a mill needs basis and will certainly consider the skills of former employees as part of the process.”

In addition to the 200 jobs created by the plant’s repurposing, IP’s announcement also opens the door to many new indirect jobs in the transportation and logging industries, said John Smolak, president of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc.

“There will be a tremendous amount of indirect spinoff in transportation jobs,” Smolak said. “These indirect jobs that are created are very important to the community as well.”

Mayor Jim Councill said a number of factors helped lead IP to the decision to repurpose part of the mill campus. Those factors include the quality of the workforce, local commitment and proximity to major ports.

“We are ecstatic,” Councill said. “We knew things were being discussed, but we didn’t know if anything was going to happen.”

Wadsworth said the availability of southern pine, which is ideal for fluff pulp, was another big reason for IP’s decision to repurpose the mill. The unique fiber length and absorption properties of this species make it ideal for producing high quality fluff pulp, according to the statement.

Fluff pulp is used in a variety of consumer goods such as baby diapers and adult incontinence products.

Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw said the investment IP will make when repurposing the mill will help spur the local economy.

“It’s a new beginning,” he said. “I think that’s the way we have to look at it.”

Don Robertson, spokesman for Isle of Wight County, said he hopes the announcement comes as psychological boost for many in the county.

“Many folks had spent their lives there,” Robertson said of the mill. “It was like losing a loved one or a family member almost. The prospect of a new beginning for the mill is huge from a psychological perspective.”

Robertson said the repurposing of the mill does not solve all of the financial challenges facing the county, but “it’s a significant start.”

Small businesses in the area will also benefit from the mill repurposing, said Franklin Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Teresa Beale.

“There will be a trickle-down effect,” Beale said. “People with paychecks will be able to put more money into the local economy.”