Governor visits Franklin

Published 9:04 am Saturday, October 31, 2009

FRANKLIN—Gov. Tim Kaine visited Franklin on Friday, meeting with local and state officials as well as employees at International Paper Co.’s soon-to-be-closed Franklin mill.

“He basically wanted to have a casual conversation with local officials, union leaders and other folks that have been involved in the terrible consequences with this plant,” said Lynda Tran, Kaine’s communication director.

The governor arrived by helicopter at John Beverly Rose-Franklin Municipal Airport just before 1:30 p.m. and held a closed-door meeting with local, state and IP officials at City Hall.

“We talked about three basic things,” he said of the closed-door meeting: plans for the immediate response effort; plans, either in tandem with IP or without, to look at reuse of the facility; and broader economic development issues for the region.

Kaine said the latter is important “because this affects not just the workers obviously but a whole lot of others, and we need to be creative in looking at opportunities to come in.” He said unused federal stimulus funds could be used to help the region, and it should be considered as lawmakers work on the state budget.

“It seems like everybody’s focused on the same thing, and that’s making sure that the families that are going to be hurt by the closing have whatever kind of support we can offer,” he said.

IP union leader Carroll Story, who’s worked at the mill for 31 years, said the meeting was productive.

“It was all about seeing what the government can bring to the table,” he said.

Story said he’s concerned about all of the mill employees under the age of 49 who won’t be able to tap into their pensions when the mill closes, but he said he’s sure the governor “will do all he can to help this region.”

After leaving City Hall, Kaine, and the other officials traveled to IP, where they talked with employees at the facility’s main gate as shifts changed.

“This was a pretty sobering visit – but also a pretty inspirational one, to talk to folks who feel so strongly a pride in their work, a pride in this community,” Kaine said.

Kaine said he spoke to people who have worked at the mill for 30-plus years and whose families have worked there for generations.

“This was helpful because it’s one thing to get the to-do list, but it’s another thing to put a face next to each item on the to-do list,” he said.

Stanley Sykes is a fourth-generation mill worker who has labored on the No. 1 machine for 31 years.

“We’re devastated,” he said after speaking to Kaine. “I just hope and pray that everything will turn out and the good Lord will look after us.”

Laborer Rob Carter, 54, said he asked the governor to “do something about NAFTA, because it’s killing the American worker.”

Carter has been at the mill 30 years. His father worked there 42 years.

“What can I say? I’m disappointed,” he said about the mill closure.

Stories like Carter’s tugged at Delegate Roslyn Tyler’s emotions. She and other state officials listened in as Kaine spoke to mill workers.

“It was heartbreaking. I had to hold back my tears,” she said.

While efforts are focused on helping soon-to-be displaced workers and their families, Kaine said there still needs to be dialog with the company to understand how it arrived at the decision to close the mill.

“There are questions,” he said. “This plant has been a productive plant and a profitable one.”

Hearing from so many longtime IP employees will help the state coordinate its response to the mill’s closure, Kaine said.

“What they said to me was, ‘We want to stay here in this community. This is a great place to live.’ Because they’ve shared, we’ll do a better job of responding,” Kaine said.

Keith Rogers, who works on the No. 4 paper machine and has been at the mill for nine years, said he is hoping the mill closure won’t have a negative effect on the city’s schools because he has children at S.P Morton Elementary and J.P. King Middle School.

“I’ve lived in Franklin my whole life,” he said. “I don’t want to move. I don’t want to be forced to move if the school system gets to the point it can’t keep up.”

Rogers said he thinks many of the workers, with help, will be able to find jobs.

He plans to go back to school.

Story said education and job training will likely be very important as mill workers transition to new jobs.

“People have deep roots around here. They don’t want to pull up their roots and leave, so they’re going to be looking for alternative employment,” he said.

Kaine said economic task force plans are still being developed, with a likely announcement early next week.

Throughout the recession, Virginia’s unemployment rate has consistently ranked among the lowest in the country, and recently some economists have said that the worst of the country’s recession is over. While pleased with the positive news, Kaine acknowledged it was little consolation to IP workers or their families.

“It’s no comfort to a community that’s lost a plant, and it’s no comfort to a family that’s lost a job,” he said.

“It’s the people who made this a great community,” said state Delegate Bill Barlow (D-Smithfield), who represents the area of Isle of Wight County where the mill is located. “And the people are still here.”