North Country Snapshot: The Struggle To Rebuild After The Mills

NHPR

The North Country has struggled economically since the closure of the paper mill in Berlin.

Tomorrow morning on NHPR, we’ll hear from Rollie Leclerc, a third-generation North Country mill worker who has been laid off and re-hired twice.  Rollie’s story is the seventh and final part of our series “Getting By, Getting Ahead,” examining how people across New Hampshire’s regions are navigating a recovering economy.

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Over the past few years, business news coverage coming out of the North Country has taken on a patina of predictability.  A factory is closing, and dozens — or even hundreds — of unskilled workers are now jobless.

In response, the region hopes to get federal funding, a new casino, a better tourism marketing campaign — something, anything to staunch the economic bleeding. Sometimes there is good news, like the reopening of the paper mill in Gorham. And in Berlin, there’s a new biomass plant under construction and a new federal prison set to open.

But good economic news is in painfully short supply.

What Makes The North Country Different

While New Hampshire as a whole is one of a handful of states doing relatively well in a sluggish national economy, the North Country isn’t feeling it. In the 2011 edition of its “What Is New Hampshire?” report, the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies summed up the region’s challenges with a handful of statistics:

“Average income per taxpayer in the Great North Woods is half of the state average, and the average weekly wage of $594 is the lowest in the state.

The region’s remoteness, as well as the scarcity of economic infrastructure like high-speed wireless Internet, poses challenges for revitalization and growth.  In 2009, the Great North Woods had the highest unemployment rate in New Hampshire: 7.8 percent ….

The portion of the adult population with a bachelor’s degree, at 14.1 percent, is the lowest of any region in New Hampshire and less than half the statewide rate of 32 percent.”

Add to that assessment the fact that the North Country has the state’s highest median age at about 48 years old; it has the largest proportion of people over the age of 65; and it doesn’t draw many new residents to replenish the aging workforce. It seems like a ready-made recipe for long-term economic hardship.

But it wasn’t always that way.

How Everything Changed

Beginning in the late 1800s, the region’s thriving lumber, pulp and paper mills drew workers — many of them immigrants – to the isolated, wooded terrain of northern New Hampshire.  Their children and then their children grew up to work the mills as well.

To this day, the region has New Hampshire’s highest proportion of residents who were born here.  In a state that largely thrives on drawing people–to the point that more than half its population comes from out-of-state–roughly two-thirds of the North Country’s residents are native-born.

Wood and paper products, the region’s signature industries, provided a lot of people with a living wage for a long time.  Even when mill work slowed down, and then manufacturing declined in the late 1980′s, the region managed to get by.

A major turning point, according to a report released by the Carsey Institute, happened in 2001.  UNH Sociology Department Chair Michele Dillon interviewed North Country community leaders from June 2009 to December 2011.  She writes:

“The painful — and for many in Coos, unimaginable — shut-down of the Berlin mill on September 10, 2001, catapulted 800 people out of work and without health insurance.  Its loss, and in quick succession the loss of additional mills and ancillary industries, plunged Coos into an economic and social crisis.”

Recently, however, Dillon has seen some positive signs in the North Country.

Necessity, The Mother Of Optimism

What the people of the North Country have going for them is resilience, Dillon tells StateImpact. The economic situation, she says, is “redeemable because people have to make it redeemable. That’s how people see it, themselves.  They want to stay living there.  And they also recognize that if they want to stay there and have a good life for themselves and their families, then they have to make it economically viable.”

Dillon cites a number of initiatives that are creating jobs in the area. Recently, a group of North Country institutions and economic development groups based primarily in New Hampshire and Vermont raked in more than $700,000 in federal jobs grants.  Among other things, the money will be used to help the area figure out how to best expand high-speed internet access. That will be crucial to region’s ability to evolve beyond low-tech mills and unskilled manufacturing into higher-tech industries.

With Gorham Paper and Tissue officially the last of the North Country’s mills, Dillon says the region faces a different challenge beyond the immediate need for economic development.

“Some would say, ‘Oh, we should bulldoze down, get rid of the chimney stacks, let’s have no more memory because it is going to be an impediment, it is going to psychologically slow us down from thinking of the future,’” Dillon says.  “But I don’t think that’s necessarily a very healthy response, either, because it is part of their history.  The mills are just so ingrained, in so many generations of so many families up there.”

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