Closure of the International Paper Co. mill in Courtland, Ala., later this year will do more than eliminate 1,100 jobs in Lawrence County. Businesses associated with the logging industry will suffer, and so will the entire local economy. When the closure was announced, 34-year mill employee Charlie Thompson said he felt like he’d been “sucker punched.”
“It felt like there was a death in the family,” said Thompson, who lives on a farm in Lexington, about 21 miles north of the plant, in Lauderdale County. He raises cows, sheep, chickens and vegetables on his farm but has always depended on a job at the mill for his primary income.
Thompson is a former president of the Lauderdale County Farmers Federation and served as state committee chairman for the Alabama Farmers Federation Meat Goat & Sheep Committee. He said the community always looked to the paper mill as a good place to work.
“There are folks who worked here alongside their children and grandchildren,” he said. “It was something the people could always count on, and the mill was good to this community.” Company officials cited declining demand for uncoated freesheet paper made at the Courtland plant as the primary reason for closing the 43-year-old facility. Attempts by state officials to convince the company to stay or find a replacement to reopen the plant have been unsuccessful to date. Thompson said he would like to see more efforts by state officials to provide economic development grants or other employment opportunities for the area.
Federation Forestry Division Director Rick Oates said full impact of the closure wouldn’t really be known until the plant shuts down completely.
“The effects will be felt all across north Alabama,” Oates said. “The direct impact on loggers and landowners from the closure also will affect gas stations, restaurants, car dealers, auto parts stores — everything. The mill supported many families across multiple counties. Without it, those families could have a difficult time supporting themselves and staying in the area.” February layoffs were the company’s second major workforce reduction since early December. International Paper relocated some of the Courtland employees to other plants; some workers retired; and others received a severance package, Thompson said.
The plant still employees about 200 workers responsible for final closure of the mill in May. Thompson is one of those. He’s still worried about his former coworkers.
“I will have some retirement that I can collect, and I will do more farming,” Thompson said. “Both my children are grown and have good jobs so we will be OK. But there are lots of good, hardworking families here who aren’t in that situation.”
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