News + Events
Anchoring in Rural: How a Mill Community Positions Itself for the Future
Ten years after a pulp and paper company pivots, residents of Washington County, Maine, are seeing a better quality of life.
by Elizabeth Rogers / Coastal Enterprises, Inc., The Daily Yonder
June 6, 2022
Well before the height of the pandemic-driven national bath tissue shortage in the spring of 2020, St. Croix Tissue, Inc., a new, state-of-the-art tissue paper manufacturer in Baileyville, Maine, was running at peak production, producing roughly 10,000 metric tons of tissue per month. Getting the tissue to out-of-state processing facilities required monthly dispatches of some 750 tractor-trailer trucks, packed with a product to meet the surge in demand, down rural Maine roads and across the Northeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S.
Located on the St. Croix River, which forms part of a natural boundary between the U.S. and Canada, St. Croix Tissue and its older sister company, Woodland Pulp LLC, are the largest employers in the region. Founded in 1904, Woodland Pulp supplies wood pulp for St. Croix Tissue and papermakers around the world.
For the St. Croix Tissue/Woodland Pulp crew, performing at the highest standards while supporting neighbors in need is business as usual, part of the ethos of a mill community made up of four generations of workers from across Washington County, Maine, and neighboring Canada.
“It’s like a big family,” says Kristen Worden, Safety Training Coordinator at St. Croix Tissue. “Everyone knows who your kids are and actually care. They ask how your kids are doing.”
But the companies’ recent success under previously unimaginable circumstances is due in part to a long-term, collaborative, people- and place-based approach to community reinvestment. Building resilience for the future began in response to an earlier crisis, also with global implications, that unfolded at the start of the century.
Globalization Reaches Rural Maine
In the late 1980s, there were some 1,200 people working between the Woodland Pulp and paper mill in Baileyville and the Louisiana Pacific Oriented Strand Board mill plant up the road at the northernmost tip of the East Coast. But at the start of the 2000s, a progressively depressed market and industry consolidation diminished sales for Woodland products. Employment at these mainstay operations dwindled to a few hundred people, devastating the local workforce and leading to divestment in the community.
Recognizing the make-or-break situation they faced, the owners of Woodland Pulp understood that radical changes were necessary to keep the lights on and the machines running. In 2010, International Grand Investment Corporation (IGIC) bought the mill and, alongside prior management, sought to implement universal improvements to increase performance and efficiency, including transitioning from oil to natural gas. The biggest pivot led to the creation of a company, St. Croix Tissue.
Positioning the community to meet the growing global demand for tissue paper required a major investment in building a brand-new facility and purchasing high-tech machinery. And, in reimagining the future, IGIC understood it needed to go one step further: develop a local skilled workforce to help it stay sustainable for the long haul.
St. Croix Tissue Human Resource Director, Stephan Donnell, explains, “We needed employees to go back to school to improve their skills. We also wanted to reverse out-migration. Anyone who wants to come ‘home’ is welcome. We’re doing everything we can to raise homegrown talent in Washington County.”
At the time, Maine was recovering more slowly from the Great Recession than other parts of the country, which only added to the challenges experienced by the state’s paper and pulp industry. Between 2001 and 2011, the industry lost nearly 4,500 workers due to mill closures and reductions Finding investment partners who would commit to a significant development project for a paper and pulp mill in a region struggling for an economic foothold was going to be tough.
The new ownership also faced the complexity of raising money for the new machinery, which would take several years to build, deliver and install, while also constructing a state-of-the-art facility. That meant that the new assets would be held on the company’s balance sheet for three to five years before generating revenue. Ultimately, it would take six years from start to finish.
St. Croix Tissue set out to engage numerous local partners to help make its vision a reality. Financing for the specialized machinery was secured through state and federal New Markets Tax Credits by CEI Capital Management and an investor, U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation. The financing also included a community benefit agreement, providing $500,000 to start a workforce development program to be managed by Maine-based community development financial institution, Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), CEI Capital Management’s parent organization.
In 2013, CEI assembled a group of community leaders to design a work-ready initiative for Washington County. With technical assistance from CEI and additional funding from Maine Quality Center and Maine Department of Labor, Washington County Community College and St Croix Tissue established a certificate program to meet training needs for the new high-tech production process. Thirty-five people in the initial training cohort completed the program and were offered job interviews.
St. Croix Tissue continues the strong industry partnership with Washington County Community College, which now offers new hire training and workforce preparation through a certificate and Associate in Applied Science Production Technology program, as well as a full menu of advanced training options for current employees and company leadership.
In addition to hiring employees through the training programs, St. Croix recruited experienced mill workers from recently closed paper mills at Bucksport, Millinocket, and other towns in Maine. Over 340 people have participated in the work-ready program since it was started, contributing to hiring and workforce expansion at the mills and other businesses in the area.
Committed to Growing Good Jobs
St Croix Tissue now employs 90 full-time workers; 310 people work at Woodland Pulp. Of the total workforce, over 110 (or 8% of Baileyville’s population) have been hired since 2010, largely to replace workers who retired. Entry-level employees at St. Croix Tissue earn $17.86 per hour, which is above Maine’s $12.15 hourly minimum wage. As employees attain certain skill block competencies, they receive incremental pay increases. Workers can earn up to $22 per hour within the first year of employment, a threshold that 80% of all St. Croix Tissue employees have achieved or surpassed. Production staff may earn up to $30 per hour, depending on position, skills, and competencies. At Woodland Pulp, entry-level employees earn $18 per hour. A full benefits package includes company-sponsored health insurance and retirement plans.
Kristen Worden is one of the original sixty hires to join St. Croix Tissue when the mill opened in 2015. A former phlebotomist, she signed up for the workforce training at Washington County Community College in order to pursue a new career opportunity. After a little more than two years on the job, Worden was promoted to Safety Training Coordinator and has improved all required safety training for new hires and existing Maintenance Department staff.
A lifelong resident of Baileyville, Ben James joined the company after graduating from local Woodland Junior-Senior High School. He attended the pre-employment training and landed his first job in operations. He advanced quickly and was soon promoted to Tissue Machine Operator, making Ben “undoubtedly the youngest paper machine operator in North America,” according to HR Director Donnell. Ben was also named Team Leader for his crew, supervising 12 people. “In Baileyville, Ben’s options would have been limited without the workforce training program,” Donnell added.
Cody Shirley was just 20 years old when she joined St. Croix Tissue and has advanced from Quality Technician to tissue machine operator to team leader in less than six years. Cody is a forewoman leading an 11-person crew. She has also deepened her commitment to Baileyville where she’s purchased a home and has become a mother of two. “Cody is part of the reason the mill has come so far, including serious improvements in safety and production,” said Kristen Worden.
During the pandemic, when a number of workers contracted Covid, the community rallied together to support each other and keep the mill operational.
Catalytic Investment Drives Community Transformation
Getting the tissue mill constructed and brought online required over a million construction hours, with up to 535 contractors on site. St. Croix was spending more than $300,000 a day for contract labor, and in total paid more than $100 million to Maine construction contractors.
“The mill is improving the quality of life,” says Stephan Donnell. For instance, students and staff members at Baileyville-Woodland High School have a new cafeteria as part of a $3 million addition and improvements to the building. And in 2020, the company reported just shy of $60 million in purchases to local vendors and numerous small businesses and business startups since coming online in 2016.
Kristen Worden notes, “The housing here – when I first showed up the housing was rough and raw. It’s in a better place now because there is more money in the community.”
The company contracts with other area businesses: two trucking companies out of Bangor as well as large trucking firms. The nearby Port of Eastport has seen an increase in trade activity due to paper/ tissue industry demand. Other benefits take time to incubate. Recently, Baileyville and Calais became the first communities in Maine to create a high-speed broadband co-op bringing fiber optic to every home and business.
There is still room for progress. The Sunrise County Economic Council reported that 55% of those eligible to work in Washington County are participating in the workforce, which is 10 percentage points lower than the state average. It is a challenge to attract mid-to-upper level position applicants to St. Croix Tissue because of the perceived costs of living in Maine, and concerns that the school system in a low-wealth census track like Washington County will be of lesser quality. Yet, as the local economy grows, the municipality is investing in its schools.
St. Croix Tissue’s role in revitalizing the community was possible through multi-stakeholder collaboration, anchored by Woodland Pulp, and brought to life by community members, all of whom are committed to sustaining economic opportunity in the region for generations to come.
This story was originally published in the Daily Yonder. For more rural reporting and small-town stories visit dailyyonder.com.