‘We will prevail’

Published 8:42 am Friday, October 30, 2009

FRANKLIN—Less than a week after news broke that International Paper Co.’s Franklin mill is closing next spring, concerned employees and their families, business owners and other community members packed a regional meeting to get answers and find out what plans are in place to help the region cope.

Elected officials from Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County, with representatives from Suffolk and Gates County, N.C. hosted the Wednesday night meeting with numerous officials from the state and federal level to try to develop a plan of action to help impacted IP employees, their families and communities.

Franklin Mayor Jim Councill opened the meeting, noting that it wasn’t just about the present, but how the region needs to position itself for the future.

“We’re addressing the needs of the community now, but planning for a positive future,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to remake ourselves and to be something we’ve never been.”

Phillip Bradshaw, who represents the Carrsville District on the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors, said that Franklin and Isle of Wight and Southampton counties must work together “as a united front and one force,” and focus less on city and county lines.

“We are in a crisis and we have to think differently,” he said. “Our first and foremost focus must be on the people impacted by this decision, we must ensure that they have the resources to help them transition through this crisis.”

He said that economic recovery will be “a long road,” but asked the audience to hold hands and repeat after him: “We will prevail.”

About 600 chairs were set up for the event, but overflow seating was needed to accommodate the crowd at Paul D. Camp Community College’s Workforce Development Center.

“This is truly a community effort, it knows no jurisdictional bounds, it knows no political bounds,” said U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., who attended the meeting.

State Sen. Frederick Quayle, R-Suffolk, and Delegates William Barlow, D-Smithfield, and Roslyn Tyler, D-Jarratt, also attended the meeting, as did representatives for U.S. Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va, Jim Webb, D-Va., and Kay Hagan, D-N.C. and Gov. Tim Kaine.

Representatives from the Virginia Employment Commission, workforce centers and other various state agencies spoke about the services that are already, or will soon be available to displaced mill workers and pledged to work to provide services for those in need. Some agencies even plan to set up services for workers to file for unemployment benefits and other job search services right at the mill.

“We want to provide the services where you are,” said Virginia Deputy Secretary of Commerce and Trade Lyn Hammond.

Karen Nicely of the Western Tidewater Community Services Board spoke about the mental health services they are willing provide to displaced mill workers and their families.

“You certainly don’t need to have a mental illness to feel the effects of stress and to need some help,” she said.

Union leader Carroll Story said IP employees were “all one big family,” and they will recover from the loss of the mill.

“We all need to be thinking about the future,” he said. “We’re going to be better coming out of this thing than we were going into it.”

Lisa Perry, Isle of Wight County’s economic development director and John Smolak, director of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc. spoke about their plans to work together to attract new businesses and jobs to the region.

Carolyn Cook of Franklin said she and her husband, Troy, will both be losing their jobs at the mill. They have worked there for 22 and 24 years, respectively.

“I believe they’re going to do everything they can to help us, but there’s not a lot they can do,” Cook said. “We’ve just got to trust and pray and have faith.”

She added, “We were born and raised in Franklin. We won’t relocate. This is our home and we’re not leaving. We’re going to stick it out for the long run.”

Franklin City Councilwoman Rosa Lawrence said the meeting was a good start to the area’s economic recovery.

“We’ll make it through,” she said. “Tonight has been a stepping stone.”

Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said he was encouraged to see the large turnout at the meeting and echoed Lawrence.

“I think this a beginning, but it’s certainly not an end at all,” he said. “I think we’re taking the first step in what will be a very long journey over the next several months.”