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Canton mill will close by summer

The sun sets on Pactiv-Evergreen's Canton mill as its closing is announced to workers on the evening of March 6. The sun sets on Pactiv-Evergreen's Canton mill as its closing is announced to workers on the evening of March 6. Cory Vaillancourt photo

After more than a century of serving as the cultural, economic and geographical center of the tiny Haywood County town of Canton, Pactiv-Evergreen’s Canton mill will cease operations at some time during the second quarter of this year. 

“I’m numb. Moreover, I’m heartbroken,” said Zeb Smathers, mayor of Canton. “I’m heartbroken for the men and women who will go home tonight and tell their spouses and children that they won’t have a job soon. There are no words. There’s nothing more I can do than mourn and stand by the workers of Evergreen. Seeing grown men cry is not what I was expecting on a Monday afternoon.”

Rumblings of trouble at the mill had been heard for some time. A month ago, company officials said that the facility would scale back production by shutting down one of its four machines, but there was no outward indication of anything larger afoot. Until today.

Workers were summoned to a series of meetings late this afternoon, where they were informed of the company’s decision.

“This is not at all a reflection of people in this room,” Byron Racki, president of beverage merchandising told a group of about 40 salaried employees gathered in an auditorium in one of the company’s facilities on Park Street, just across from the union hall.

Racki said that the decision had only been made within the last week, and that it was “almost exclusively a reflection of the market conditions, along with the capital costs that would be needed to upgrade the Canton facility.”

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The closing will likely occur near the end of May or beginning of June, according to Racki. The Waynesville facility will see a substantial reduction in workforce, on the order of two-thirds to three-fourths of its employees, but Racki wasn’t clear about other impacts there.

“This was not just about Canton, or just about Waynesville, or Pine Bluff,” he said, noting that a facility in Olmsted Falls, Ohio would close as well. “We are going to explore strategic alternatives for Pine Bluff and for the Waynesville facilities.”

The economic impact of the mill’s closing on Haywood County’s economy will be substantial. It's estimated that there are around 1,200 jobs at stake in Canton, and around 300 in Waynesville. 

The mill also treats the town of Canton’s wastewater. Those operations will not be impacted immediately, according to Racki.

“We will continue to operate that for the foreseeable future, and we're working closely with the city on a transition plan there,” he said. “So that will be a small group of folks who will operate that. We do not need the mill to operate just the wastewater treatment. So that's something we will work on with the city.”

Racki said that the most important concern right now was for workers to continue to operate the plant safely and avoid injuries for the rest of the time it’s in operation.

“I wanted to come and share this message personally, because I can't pretend to say I know what it's like, other than I know enough to know it's terrible,” he said. “And we've not reached this decision lightly.”

Human resources professionals from Evergreen will meet with all employees starting tomorrow morning, finishing by the end of the week, Racki said. Workers will receive at least 60 days’ notice before their employment is terminated. Some may be terminated sooner, but they’ll still receive full pay and benefits for 60 days.

Workers received Racki’s comments in stunned silence, with at least one audible gasp from someone in the audience. After Racki’s presentation, he took questions from the workers gathered there.

The mill, he said, is not a Superfund site. The Superfund program was established in 1980 under the auspices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the cleanup of sites that are contaminated with hazardous chemicals.

That could open a huge swath of land straddling the Pigeon River, right in the center of town, for other uses in the future.

Racki also elaborated on the specific market conditions that he says are responsible for the mill’s closing.

“In the last 15 months, there was a nice rebound from COVID,” he said. “Really, since November, December, markets have gone to hell, for lack of a better way of saying that. It's not just us, it's everybody, from a marketing standpoint.”

There’s a lot of excess capacity in the marketplace, Racki explained, which is why the company shut down the number 20 machine in early February.

“When we're looking at forecasts, and when things might get better, If anything I'll tell you unfortunately, specific to the paper side it's only gotten flat to worse for the last 60 days,” he said.

He also said that due to challenging economic conditions generally, people are choosing to eat more at home than at McDonald’s or Starbucks — huge consumers of paper products of all sorts.

“It’s not a good market for cup stock, either,” he said. “The paper part [of the plant], [machines] 11, 12 and 20 specifically, are impacted by that. It’s just for lack of demand. People just aren’t printing things.”

Racki said that the company would issue a press release between 8 and 9 p.m. this evening with further details.

The town of Canton’s fortunes have risen and fallen along with those of the mill for more than 100 years. The mill’s closing will be transformational for the small town, in ways both immediately apparent and not. But Canton has been recognized as “the little town that wouldn’t stay down” after surviving flooding in 2004, the Great Recession in 2008, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and another deadly flood in August, 2021.

Mayor Zeb Smathers thinks that this, too, shall pass.

“Everyone knows we’re a mill town, but not because of the mill,” Smathers said. “Being a mill town is about the grit, and when the odds are against you, about overcoming challenges. Ironically, the values of being a mill town are exactly what will get us through this.”

This is a developing story. Check for updates online, or on newsstands, in the next issue of The Smoky Mountain News, available on Wednesday, March 8. 

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