For gays, desperation too often a way of life

A few years ago, I received a letter from a reader that I have never forgotten. Upset over the suicide of a former student — who I knew had long agonized over dealing with his homosexuality due to various painful journal entries he had written on his struggles — I had written a fairly angry column denouncing homophobia and challenging the widely held belief that one’s sexual orientation is a “choice.” About a week later, a letter arrived from a gentleman in his 60s, who basically laid out the long, sad story of his own lifelong struggle with being gay.

SCC ranking a sign of the high quality of community colleges

In this day and age, as the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen and this country’s manufacturing economy undergoes a dramatic transformation, community colleges are more important than ever.

Roll the credits, please – ASU 34, Mich. 32

For the last 24 hours, I have felt like a character in a movie. You have seen the movie, probably dozens of times. A small-town team nobody has ever heard of gets its big chance against a nationally ranked powerhouse. The fans there look up things about the team just out of curiosity, where the town is on the map, the enrollment numbers, maybe. They cannot pronounce the name of the school.

Mills new owners have a strong legacy to live up to

When the new owners of the Canton paper mill announced a few weeks ago that company headquarters were being moved to Memphis, it was seen as mostly a footnote to the larger story of Blue Ridge Paper’s sale to the Rank Group of New Zealand. That story of the mill sale became public back in April.

But the move to Memphis is symbolically important in many ways, and at least two of them are worth noting for the potential impact on Haywood County and the region. First, the successful sale of Blue Ridge Paper to the Rank Group was the culmination of what some mill insiders describe as an almost miraculous story of survival, one in which every employee will benefit.

Secondly, the move marks the end of a 100-year tenure of Canton-based mill managers and company executives who cared deeply about their community and their employees. That story is one unique to mill towns, one that is fading into history as the global economy changes the fundamental nature of the manufacturing industry.

 

A survival story

The impact of the paper mill on Canton and on the region is a story of epic proportions, and entire chapters could be written on its environmental, economic and cultural legacies. Books are already in print on the subject, and it’s very likely that more will be published. But these last eight years have been, perhaps, the most remarkable in the mill’s history.

When Champion announced plans to sell its Canton mill in 1999, the likelihood of closure was high. That would have put nearly 2,000 people out of work. But through community support, especially the work of many regional leaders, a plan was developed. KPS, a New York investment company that was well known for working with unionized companies, provided the cash to buy the mill while workers agreed to a series of pay cuts, wage freezes and benefit reductions. In exchange, the employees got 40 percent of the mill’s ownership and profit sharing.

Over these eight years, the profits have not materialized. Many times it seemed the mill was on the verge of closing, and it had racked up a debt of $213 million by the time of the sale to the Rank Group. Somehow, though, management and workers always found a way to survive. New markets were found. Employee productivity skyrocketed. During an eight-year span when about 100 North American paper mills closed, Blue Ridge held on.

That meant that the 1,100 remaining jobs in Haywood County also survived. And, despite the debt and the gloomy outlook for the industry, a buyer emerged that at least for now plans to keep the mill open. In addition, workers will be able to get somewhere around $20,000 each for the stock they own. The deal may not have worked out as many had hoped, but in the end the jobs are still intact, the mill is in the hands of a growing force in the paper industry, and workers will get a sizeable stock bonus.

 

Now, a cog in a big wheel

While the last eight years are a story in survival, the move of company headquarters to Memphis marks a turning point in the mill’s 100-year history in Canton. Even though the old Champion International had headquarters elsewhere, there was always the feeling that Canton was a centerpiece, as it was when Reuben Robertson Sr. founded the mill in 1906. When Blue Ridge Paper was formed, it initially decided to locate its headquarters in Asheville but soon came back to Canton.

There has always been a symbiotic relationship between the paper mill, Canton, and all of Haywood County. Mill employees were paid well, and that prosperity brought further benefits to the region as the workers sent children off to college and spent their hard-earned wages on homes and other items that brought prosperity to lthe ocal business community.

Now, as new owners take control, differences are already apparent. The privately held Rank Group won’t be holding press conferences to announce profits and losses, and its executives are reluctant to talk to the media at all. The steadfast support that has been shown to the mill — even when it was being sued by Tennessee residents and cursed by environmentalists for degrading the Pigeon River — was always about more than just the jobs it provided.

The short history of Blue Ridge Paper has come to an end, as did the long story of Champion in 1999. Only the future will tell how Rank — and its umbrella company known as Evergreen — will treat the workers and the community that have embraced the paper mill through decades of controversy and prosperity. We can only hope for the best.

When did the need for AC move up the mountain?

When we were having record and near record heat back in August, I did what any overheated mountain dweller would do — I packed up the family and headed to the beach.

We don’t have air conditioning in our rural Clyde home; my wife and I tell ourselves that we don’t need it. However, in recent years there seems to be a 10-day to 2-week period in late summer that the humidity and increasingly hotter temperatures make us question why we are denying the obvious.

Vick a poster child for depraved stars

Has any professional athlete ever made more a mess of his life than Atlanta Falcon quarterback Michael Vick?

At the ripe old age of 27, Vick had it made. After a stellar senior season at Virginia Tech, Vick was drafted in the first round of the 2001 NFL draft by the Falcons and immediately anointed as the savior of a struggling franchise, an electrifying quarterback unlike any the league had ever seen. Although one could name several quarterbacks throughout the history of the NFL who were mobile enough to scramble and occasionally break loose for decent runs, Vick was the first quarterback whose running ability actually terrified defensive coordinators around the league.

TDA changes ramrodded by county manager

By Scot Warf

As past chairman of the Swain County Tourism Development Authority (TDA), I feel compelled to share with the community the events surrounding the recent hostile takeover of the Swain County TDA. In the fall of 2006, Kevin King, Swain County Administrator and Finance Officer, called me to ask whether the TDA would be interested in a new visitor center facility. I told him I would have to ask my board members to get their feelings on the issue. Mr. King told me that he would rather that I not ask too many of our board members because he wanted to keep this issue quiet.

Duke just hasn’t offered much to the region

The phrase “do the right thing,” the name of an early Spike Lee movie, has become a part of the lexicon of this generation. It’s a phrase that has often come to mind — as in, “we wish they would do the right thing ” — as we’ve watched Duke Energy throughout the negotiations to relicense its hydropower operations in the region.

Hats off to Jackson County commissioners

Last week Jackson County commissioners passed what is being called the strongest set of development regulations in North Carolina. They’ve set a standard for other counties to follow, and we think they’ve accomplished this in a manner that won’t hurt the home-building industry that has become so important to Western North Carolina.

Is summer over already?

When I went back to teaching full time about three years ago, one of the things I looked forward to most was having seven full weeks off in the summer. I have never had more than a week off here or a long weekend there, just long enough to squeeze in a trip to the beach or to see the parents, then hustle back barely in time to get home, unpack, eat cereal for dinner, collapse, then get up and go back to work the very next day. Aren’t vacations supposed to be refreshing, or invigorating, or at least relaxing? Then why did I always have the feeling after a vacation that I needed ANOTHER vacation to recover from my vacation before going back to work?

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