Earlier this year the Gorham paper mill re-opened under new ownership.
With about six months of work under its belt, managers and workers are optimistic that paper production will once again be profitable in the North Country.
NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports.
Not so long ago it looked like the North Country would lose its last paper mill.
Eddie DeBlois is a union official.
“I think if we look back to where we were last year at this time we were kind of thinking the best chance of something happening with our mill was demolition.”
Then last spring Patriarch Partners, , a New York investment firm, purchased the plant.
It re-opened late in June with owner Lynn Tilton promising to invest money and give the mill a vibrant future.
Sound of machinery….
Six months later, machinery is once again cranking out paper.
But with the reopening come significant changes at Gorham Paper and Tissue aimed at cutting costs and making new products.
Plant Manager Willis Blevins makes it clear that the goal isn’t just survival it is prosperity.
“Either you are changing or you are dying in my opinion. You are doing one of those two.”
Blevins has been the plant manager for the last five years.
He says when the plant was owned by Fraser Papers it faced two major operating challenges, which made some months profitable, and others not
“Energy and fiber were just two of the highest costs in the mill.”
The plant had been using heating oil.
But no more.
“We put in a natural gas line. We’re hitting and making steam for the paper machines from natural gas instead of number six oil.”
Natural gas is greener and saves a huge amount of money, Blevins says.
And now the plant gets its fiber from Old Town Fuel and Fiber in Maine, which is also owned by Patriarch Partners.
The Gorham plant is getting ready for its next big change, a new tissue machine.
Rino Dumont is the project manager for the new machine.
“We have committed and purchased a 100-ton tissue machine. The machine will be supplied from Italy.”
It costs about $35 million.
Dumont says it should be operating by the end of next September.
It will make a variety of tissues for home use. Napkins. Toilet paper. Paper towels.
Willis Blevins said the tissue machine will be the key to the plant’s profitability.
“Tissue is a growing market and I don’t think anyone would have bought this mill and I would have recommended they did not buy it if they weren’t getting into tissue.”
Blevins says industry studies show a growing demand for such tissue.
And it’s unlikely that demand would be met through international competition, because tissue is expensive to ship.
Gorham plans to focus on selling to private labels in the Northeast.
Meanwhile the plant is operating, producing sheets of paper as well as the kind of hand towels you would find in a rest area. Assuming you could find an open rest area.
Union official Eddie DeBlois.
“We have been running two machines I would say probably 75 – 80 percent of the time for probably the last month or so.”
Blevins says there are about 165 people working now. The plant had just under 200 workers when it closed.
The tissue machine should bring back another 29 workers.
Dick Arnold is the president of both Old Town Fuel and Fiber in Maine and the Gorham plant. He says these changes are all adding up to a good-looking future.
“So, with the synergies with the Old Town Pulp Mill, with the long-term strategy of getting into tissue and with a solid, efficient green-energy platform this mill can be profitable and sustainable long term for jobs and manufacturing.”
That would come as a huge and pleasant surprise for a region that thought its role making paper was forever gone.
For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen