On the rebound

Published 10:44 pm Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Good news from the Isle of Wight/Franklin area has been scarce in recent years. The announcement in October 2009 that International Paper would close its pulp mill on the Isle of Wight side of the Blackwater River was just the harshest of a series of blows to that community’s economic standing over a period of many years. Even before the 2009 announcement, the days were long gone when jobs at “The Mill” were plentiful and all but guaranteed comfortable retirement pensions.

Consequently, it’s probably unfair to expect — maybe even to hope — that the rebound in the Franklin area will be either quick or decisive. Much as the community and its neighbors might have wished for it, there was never any realistic hope that a single economic savior would come to town, turn things around and restore Franklin to its former glory overnight.

Instead, economic development officials from all over the area have been working to find a variety of companies that could be enticed either to expand existing operations or relocate to the area and provide jobs for small segments of the 1,200-employee workforce that was put out of work when the pulp machines finally shut down. While it would take a lot of 20- or 30-employee announcements to put everyone back to work, each of those announcements would have life-changing effects on the 20 or 30 employees who found themselves re-employed.

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Meanwhile, city, county and state officials never let up their pressure on International Paper, working hard to convince the company that there was still a place for Western Tidewater in its future. And that persistence paid off on Tuesday with the company’s announcement that it would reopen a portion of the Franklin mill with a new purpose, the production of fluff pulp, which is used to make, among other things, diapers.

The company’s decision is expected to result in the creation of 213 jobs, about a sixth of the total number that were directly lost to the 2009 shutdown. What remains to be seen is the broader employment effect as other companies gear up to provide support to the company and its new employees.

However it all shakes out, though, the announcement is clearly good news to Franklin and all of Western Tidewater, which for many years counted the paper mill as a major employer. And good news in that area has been a rare commodity. We can only hope that it’s just the beginning of the rebound.