A resilient town

Published 12:18 pm Monday, June 1, 2009

Fifty-three years ago this weekend, the surprise announcement of Camp Manufacturing Co.’s pending merger with Union Bag and Paper Co. plunged Franklin into a deep funk.

Parke Rouse Jr., in his excellent book “The Timber Tycoons,” reports that townsfolk were so distressed about their community’s future that May 29, 1959, would be dubbed “Black Sunday,” when paper and lumber mill supervisors were summoned for an unusual weekend meeting with top management to hear the news.

Word that the new company would be headquartered in New York City was especially troubling for the people of Western Tidewater, who saw a bleak future for their anchor employer, its workers and the community at large.

A half-century of hindsight reveals clearly, of course, that those “city boys” did just fine by Franklin and that the town, rather than die, prospered during the four-plus decades of Union Camp Corp.

The doomsday scenario returned in 1999 with the double whammy of Union Camp’s sale to International Paper Co. and a major flood that gulped the downtown commercial district. The rallying cry of “You Can’t Drown a Great Town” notwithstanding, many were quietly pessimistic about the community’s capacity to recover and survive as anything more than a shadow of its former self.

One decade later, despite a deep national recession and steady job losses at the mills, Franklin and Western Tidewater remain a stable community of good people who, for the most part, enjoy gainful employment and a good qualify of life.

My point?

That things are never as bad as they seem — and that Franklin’s track record of resilience bodes well as our community works through its current challenges.

A question I hear often these days — right behind how the newspaper’s doing — is, “What will happen with Franklin?”

The saw mill’s closure and production cutbacks at the paper mill have many contemplating a post-mill economy – or at least an economy with a much smaller manufacturing footprint than what Camp Manufacturing and its successors have stamped on it over the past century.

The question is valid, and community leaders are wise to consider and prepare for its implications.

Assuming that happens — that this community and its fine civic, political and economic leadership, like generations before them, work feverishly now on long-range solutions to the problems that threaten us — the belief here is that Franklin will be just fine. It will no longer be a “company town,” as it has existed since its founding, but maybe that’s a healthy thing. One-horse towns rarely survive the ebb and flow of a free-market economy, especially one that has gone global.

The Franklin of the future will be sustained by small businesses, increasingly service- and technology-oriented, that likely will import a more skilled labor force than what the vestiges of a dying manufacturing economy can provide.

Geographically, Western Tidewater could hardly be better positioned for the economy of the future. Greater Hampton Roads, when the recession ends, will resume thriving with commerce, which will migrate west as Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Suffolk run out of land.

An ideal future? By no means. The community will look and function much differently than it has. The population will become more transient, the economy more diversified. The days of a few prominent families running things and looking out for the best interest of the rest of us are essentially over. Fresh faces and fresh voices will come on the scene and instantly assume positions of influence. They will live here a few years and move on.

Our rural lifestyle will be compromised, though not irreparably. New subdivisions on the outskirts of town will become necessary evils. Fewer businesses will be locally owned. People will be more selfish with their time and money and less civic-minded.

It is, for all of its flaws, a model for survival. Franklin has created those time and again over the years — and will again this time.