First in a two-part series
It makes Kevin Vincent wonder when he glances out his restaurant window and there’s no plume bellowing from Corner Brook Pulp and Paper’s stacks.
“There’s some days you see it and it’s not going. You’re like, ‘What’s going on there?’” he says.
Vincent’s place, Newfound Sushi, overlooks the mill from Broadway.
He opened in March and business has been going smoothly, something that can’t be said for the Kruger-owned paper plant just down the hill.
Last Friday, Kruger said it was re-evaluating the operation’s long-term viability after workers rejected a pension restructuring proposal.
That sent chills throughout the Corner Brook area and across Newfoundland and Labrador.
“It’s a very serious situation, obviously,” says Tom Marshall, the province’s finance minister and MHA Humber East, a district that includes a large swath of Corner Brook.
His numbers show just how serious.
In 2011, roughly 400 people worked at the mill, 200 were employed in the woodlands and there were 30 positions at the Deer Lake power plant.
There were 43 people laid off earlier this year, but if the mill shut down, the rest of those jobs would be gone, as would over 800 positions with suppliers or contractors and around 470 spin-off positions.
That’s almost 1,700 jobs, about 15 per cent of the employment in Corner Brook area.
The loss to the provincial economy — based on 2011 numbers — would be $115 million in gross domestic product and $100 million in labour income. (Mill workers earn between $60,000 and $90,000 annually.)
“People would feel (a mill closure) in a major way,” Marshall says.
Mayor Neville Greeley shares that concern.
“You just don’t replace those salaries with minimum-wage jobs in the service industry,” he says.
But if the mill shut down and all those jobs were lost would Corner Brook become the west ghost city?
Would the city lose a claim to fame listed on its website — that it’s the oldest Canadian city its size? (The others have either grown, amalgamated or collapsed.)
None of the people interviewed believe the end of the mill would spell the end of the city.
“It will make a dent into the economy of Corner Brook, but the mill is not the backbone of the economy of Corner Brook anymore,” Vincent says. “It used to be at one time. ... It would be different if it was 20 years ago.”
Keith Goulding, president of the Greater Corner Brook Board of Trade, thinks a mill closure would create an economic lull throughout the region for a while, but things would ramp up again after a few years.
He believes other sectors would eventually fill the void, and he points to Grand Falls-Windsor and Stephenville as towns that survived losing mills.
“Corner Brook will as well,” Goulding says. “I think Corner Brook has weathered a lot of storms in its long history.”
Greeley also points to the Grand Falls-Windsor and Stephenville as examples, and notes Corner Brook’s economy is more diversified than those towns.
“Would it have a devastating effect on the economy? Absolutely,” he says. “But would Corner Brook fold up shop and become a ghost town? I don’t think so.”
But Kruger hasn’t shut the mill, and those quoted were asked what would happen if it did.
There are still many who believe Corner Brook Pulp and Paper has a future.
Bruce Randell, president of Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (Local 242), is one of them.
Even though some of his members were among the workers who rejected the pension proposal, he remains confident in the mill.
“I’ve been wrong before, but I’ll be surprised if the mill is going down,” he says. “We’re one of the best cost producers of a tonne of paper in North America.”
Corner Brook Pulp and Paper is said to have a lot of things going for it, including its hydro plant, wood supply, experienced workforce and access to shipping lanes.
Given all those factors, Marshall believes the mill has a chance of surviving, although he says that will involve some tough choices.
He was optimistic coolers heads would prevail and the union and company would work through the issues.
“I think they can do it,” he says.
Tough choices would be nothing new to the workers.
The past number of years have been devastating on the newsprint industry with countless mill closures near and far, and Corner Brook Pulp and Paper has taken its lumps, with machine closures and lay-offs.
“After a while the members get used to it,” Randall says, adding if the mill is going to be viable, it must improve efficiency and increase the tonnage it produces.
He expected to hear something from the company Friday. A request for an update from Kruger’s public relations department late yesterday was not returned.
But even if the current crisis is resolved and the mill remains open, there are some who believe it’ll be surviving on borrowed time, like Brad Evoy, an activist and student who blogs for cornerbrooker.com.
“I think we still have to have that realization that, in all likelihood, that mill will close. I would think, within the next decade, and we need to really look at what we want our city to look like, and how we’re going to deal with that impact and lessen that in our community,” he says.
Regardless of what the future might bring, the sushi-rolling Vincent is upbeat.
“I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’m a business owner. You have to be, right.”
This story has been corrected
Monday: What’s being done to diversify Corner Brook’s economy, regardless of the mill situation.