Gearing up: Mill outage to bring hundreds of outside laborers to CantonWritten by Colby Dunn
For the last month, Greg Petty has been on a leaflet campaign around Canton. He’s been to parking lots. He’s been to offices. He’s been to bulletin boards. He’s been inside Evergreen Packaging, the paper mill that looms large in the town’s small center, and trolled its perimeter, plastering spots that might catch the eye of workers with his restaurant’s offerings.
“We’ve got menus up at every tunnel and every gate and every parking lot,” said Petty, the owner of the Canton Lunch Box.
The Main Street lunch and dinner spot is hardly in need of new business. On any given weekday around noon, there is nary a seat to be found. The wooden tables and chairs are filled with mill workers and other locals, and the staff seem acquainted with virtually all of them.
But what Petty, with his paper push, is gearing up for is an onslaught of new customers, thanks to more than 1,400 contract workers who will descend on the town next week for a massive mill maintenance, the largest since 2003.
A collective undertaking
The workers are coming for what, in the paper business, is called a cold mill outage. The paper mill will halt operations for three days and undergo major maintenance for several weeks to overhaul the place. They’re cleaning, they’re replacing pipes, they’re rebuilding boilers, they’re aligning massive pieces of equipment like steam turbines.
It’s going to take regular mill employees working at full pelt — some clocking overtime — and a hoard of outside contractors to get it all done.
But for an often-sleepy hamlet like Canton, such an influx of people isn’t just a massive undertaking for the mill: it’s a massive undertaking for the entire town. With the incoming contractors, the town’s population will swell by a third. And out in the streets, if they’re not busily gearing up, they’re anticipating the busyness to come.
“I’m not going out to eat for the next week,” said Nancy Rathbone at Sign World WNC on Main Street.
Sign World itself, meanwhile, has been cranking out custom signage for the mill as fast as it can: signs to mark parking lots, signs to mark exits, stickers for parking, ID badges, new plaques for machinery and a plethora of other printed pieces to orient and direct the out-of-town workers. Charles Rathbone, the company’s owner, said Evergreen officials have been in nearly every day in the weeks running up to the outage.
“We’re getting a lot done for the mill to gear up and probably expect a whole lot more during the period of time that they’re here,” said Rathbone, who said he’s excited about the outage and believes it will be good for Canton.
The mill estimates that it’ll be pretty good for it’s hometown, as well. The outage should boost the local economy by $500,000, according to Mike Cohen, a company spokesman.
According to Cohen, they arrived at that $500,000 figure by using an economic impact formula that factors in things such as hotel nights, meals and gas.
Mark Clasby, Haywood County’s economic development director, said that’s only one facet of the positive impact the outage will bring.
“It’s good news because of the capital investment that they’re making in the plant to continue operations, but there are multiplier effects — it means buying supplies, there’s hotel nights, meals, things like that, expenses. All those factors go into that,” said Clasby.
A boon for business
Businesses around Canton are already feeling the rising tide they hope will continue to lift all boats.
At Days Inn on Champion Drive, they’re completely booked. They’re pretty close at the Comfort Inn just down the road, the town’s other hotel.
“We just have a few rooms, but they are very few,” said Gagan Nanda, who works the desk there. He said they’ve been taking advance bookings for three months now in preparation for the work.
The contractors themselves have been preparing, too. Anchor Steam Power, based in Asheville, said that, although they keep a crew at the plant nearly year-round to repair and maintain boilers, they’ll be sending in nearly 200 extra workers to revamp most of the plant’s many boilers.
Evergreen will be paying dearly for the maintenance — they expect it to cost in the range of $20 million.
They’ve budgeted for the outage and upped production in the weeks leading up to it so they can keep their customers’ orders filled, said Cohen, though, he notes, it isn’t a move they’re keen to make regularly.
“It’s one of those things that you do them when you need to, but not anymore often than you have to,” he said.
Of the $20 million that the company thinks they’ll spend on the outage, 60 percent of it — around $12 million — will be spent on paying workers to do the maintenance. The other $8 million will go to pay for the maintenance itself, purchasing supplies and equipment, along with preparations for the incursion of extra help.
Some of those workers, like those from Anchor Steam, are from the region. Most, though, are industry specialists who travel around the country, bouncing from site to site doing similar work.
“Most of the contractors have specialized skills for what we need,” said Cohen. “A paper mill is not like anything except other paper mills, and even those can be very different.”
With so many out-of-region workers, that means they’ll be relying on the town for pretty much everything, and in addition to shops and motels, some of Canton’s restaurants are ready to entice the temporary customers in for a meal or two.
Back at the Lunch Box, they’ve bolstered their operations in addition to their marketing.
“During the outage and the upgrade, we’re going to be opening at 10 in the morning and we’re going to double our staff,” said restaurant-owner Petty. They’ll also be delivering to the mill, and just in case anyone didn’t hear about their offerings, they’ve saturated the campus with paper.
Petty is also the man behind the renovation of the town’s Imperial Hotel, which will include a restaurant slated to open later this year. Though he was shooting for both restaurants to be open, Petty’s excited about the infusion of people and believes it will be a boon to the town’s businesses and morale.
“I think a lot of the people in town are excited about having 1,500 people in town that aren’t from Canton,” said Petty.
Rene Cutshaw, the service manager at Sagebrush steakhouse, one of the town’s other lunch spots, said they’re bulking up their normal staff schedules, too.
“We are putting some extra staff on next week and getting ready for the people staying in the hotels that are right behind us,” said Cutshaw.
And as one of only two restaurants that serve alcohol, and the only bar, they’re expecting an upshot in their sales there, too.
“We’re the only option, but we’re a good one,” said Cutshaw. “The next closest [bar] is O’Malley’s in Waynesville, so we’re making sure we’ve got a bunch of bottled beer ready and making sure we’re ready to meet their needs.”
The town itself has been helping out with operations, too. Though Town Manager Al Matthews said Evergreen has been handling most of the logistics, his staff has been helping them locate parking lots to house the workers’ vehicles while they’re here, which is no mean feat in Canton’s small downtown.
“We’ve been coordinating with their people to accommodate the extra vehicles that will be in the town, and our law enforcement is trying to accommodate that, to have enhanced patrols to protect all those vehicles,” said Matthews.
With so many unmanned cars sitting in vacant lots all day, police realize that the temptation might be too much for potential thieves.
Matthews, too, is optimistic about the benefits that the maintenance will bring.
“I think it will be very positive,” said Matthews, echoing the sentiments and hopes expressed by many in Canton ahead of the outage.
So as the little town readies for the big mill ball, they seem to have their hopes high that the temporary boom will be as loud and prosperous as estimates promise.