Warner talks jobs, economy, IP

Published 9:16 am Wednesday, January 13, 2010

FRANKLIN—U.S. Sen. Mark Warner visited Franklin on Tuesday to give community and business leaders a pep talk in the wake of the closure of the International Paper Co. mill.

The junior senator and former governor also introduced two proposals he is working on to improve the economy and jobs, and also visited workers at the mill who are trying to find new careers.

“I’d like to say that I have a silver bullet. I don’t,” Warner told a luncheon crowd at Cypress Cove Country Club. “This community has been hard hit by the unimaginable. It’s going to be a transition. You will get through it. (But) this is no consolation to somebody who thought they had another 10 or 20 years of work in front of them.”

The Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce and Manry Rawls Insurance organized Warner’s visit, his first since the U.S. Department of Labor announced on Dec. 23 that Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits would be extended to 1,100 mill workers.

“Our challenge is going to be to make sure that we continue to get the appropriate assistance for those workers who have been displaced,” Warner said, adding that anyone who has an idea for future use of the IP mill should “get a fair shot at seeing how we might convert some of the use of that facility.”

Warner said he was working on two proposals in the Senate. The first was a plan to take $30 billion of unused Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds and match it with funds from community-based and mid-sized banks for lending to existing small businesses. He emphasized that the plan would not add to the deficit.

“While financial markets have recovered, one piece of the financing market that has not recovered has been small business lending,” Warner said. “A lot of banks are trying to hold all of their capital and put it on their balance sheets because they still have a lot of bad real estate loans, home loans and commercial loans. They have been less willing to go out and make small business loans.”

Warner’s second proposal is a bold plan to try and bring businesses from foreign countries back to the U.S. The plan calls for spending between $40 and $100 million — up to $10,000 per job — on forgivable loans to companies that bring manufacturing and technology jobs to America. The federal money would supplement funds from state and local economic development efforts.

“I believe in trade,” Warner said. “We’re going to live in a global economy whether we like it or not. (But) there’s never been any national assistance to try to assist bringing foreign-based companies, or companies that have an international footprint, to actually locate jobs in America.”

The senator said the U.S. was in direct competition with many countries — including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and Germany — for jobs.

“I realize that (IP) has made this decision based upon what they felt was the overall needs of the products coming out of Franklin,” Warner said. “(But) it does seem a little curious to me that the company has also made significant investments in Brazil and other countries around the world over the last few years and that somehow that mix of American-based product versus foreign-based product has changed. I’m tired of jobs in this country continuing to exit and go abroad.”

After the luncheon at Cypress Cove, Warner traveled to the mill itself and toured a large, one-room career center there designed to help workers set on the path to job training, additional education, or a new career. The Virginia Employment Commission, Paul D. Camp Community College, and Opportunity Inc. of Hampton Roads are among several entities collectively operating the career center.

Joe Davis, a 49-year-old resident of Severn, N.C. who has worked at the mill for 31 years, said he was walking past the career center when he saw Warner and decided to listen to his conference with the staff there.

“He was encouraging,” Davis said. “I would love to see one of my senators here. It seems like lots of times they forget about us, especially those of us that live on the line and work in another state.”

Davis said that until Dec. 31, he worked on the No. 1 paper machine. Now, he enters data into a computer and compiles tank files. He plans to go back to school, but not knowing when his last day at IP will be and when the classes he wants to take are available is complicating matters.

“It’s kind of frightening to think that I’m going to go back to school after 32 years,” Davis chuckled. “(But) if I leave at the end of March, then I’ve got to look for a job in April and May. You can’t turn down a job.”

The staff at the career center, Davis said, “has been a real good help. A lot of people need to take advantage of this.”