Siblings Eve Redman and Roger Green grew up just across the Potomac River from the Luke Mill, where their father worked for 42 years. They followed in his footsteps, laboring in the paper factory nearly as long.
But they won’t surpass his tenure. The 131-year-old mill is ceasing production at the end of May, a shutdown that has been long feared but was no less unsettling to families like theirs.
Redman, 59, is ready to retire, as her eldest brother did after a three-decade career at the mill. She’s put in her time — 41½ years there.
But Green, 61, doesn’t see a reason to end his career, as long as he can find a good job close to home in Piedmont, W.Va. He has three decades of experience loading paper into tractor-trailers and rail cars, but isn’t sure what to do next.
“I want to keep working,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to drive an hour and a half to do it.”
Unfortunately, the options are few in this rugged stretch of Appalachia. It’s the shared plight of the nearly 700 millworkers and their families, one that extends far beyond the facility’s powder-blue steel walls.
The closure casts fear of economic devastation across the green hills of Western Maryland, West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania, a region that has already seen decades of industrial decline and is struggling to create opportunities for young people who are more likely to head to urban centers when they reach adulthood.
Union officials suggest that for each of those mill jobs lost, three more will disappear in the trucking, rail and timber industries, and at shops and restaurants frequented by mill families. And finding new employment for each of those displaced workers won’t be easy — what jobs are out there may require a move, months of retraining and, likely, a diminished standard of living.
Jim Strong, the United Steelworkers staff member who represents the bulk of the mill’s workers, said that will have destructive ripple effects.
“These are jobs that built the middle class,” Strong said. “This was more than a job. This was a way of life out here.”
Ohio-based mill owner Verso Corp. announced the closure April 30, saying reduced demand for paper and increasing competition from overseas were cutting into the Luke factory’s profits. Verso officials also expected operating costs to rise soon as Maryland environmental regulators pressed the mill to cut emissions of a harmful pollutant, of which the facility is Maryland’s chief source.
The closure stunned the community, even though for years people feared it was inevitable.
Verso and previous mill owners repeatedly fought off state lawmakers’ proposals to strip the facility of millions of dollars in state subsidies intended to spur investment in renewable energy development, a fight detailed in a 2017 Baltimore Sun series. But the company continued to collect the money, largely because of concerns that taking it away might kill union jobs.
Now, the jobs will disappear anyway, and the community is reeling — but not waiting to act.
There have been union hall meetings, and calls for family photos of generations of millworkers whose lives are being uprooted. The steelworkers local is preparing to begin bargaining with Verso next week for extended health care and life insurance benefits for its members.
A dozen clergy led a couple hundred people in prayer one night at the town hall in Luke, the company town directly across the street from the mill that long got its steam heat, and still gets its drinking water, from the factory. Discussions are underway about how to maintain the water supply and sewage treatment for Luke’s 60 remaining residents.
Within hours of the closure announcement, Allegany County and state officials in both Maryland and West Virginia began planning a job fair that took place last week in a former high school that educated thousands of future millworkers living on the north side of the Potomac.
The last generation of those workers flooded aisles of tables lining the gym at what is now a church called the Bruce Outreach Center in Westernport, just down the road from Luke. They asked questions about how and when they can apply for unemployment insurance, and how they can maintain health insurance once their Verso-sponsored plans expire.
And they met with recruiters eager to find help, and to offer it.
At the table for Triton Construction, a West Virginia-based contractor with an office in Cumberland and projects nearby, a millwright asked whether the work would involve travel, saying he hoped the mill closure wouldn’t force him to move from Garrett County.
“We’re looking to grow inside of Maryland,” Jessica Raines, the company’s contract administrator, assured him.
She came with stress balls shaped like construction helmets and wore a smile, saying she knew she would face apprehension from potential hires. She knew she had to overcome that, she said, if she was going to address her company’s looming needs for labor.
She urged the man to take an apprenticeship application, and shook his hand.
“Good luck,” she said. “I was on your side a year ago.”
Like Triton, many industrial employers came to the fair looking for skilled laborers. Others were looking to hire mill office staff and managers, or to retrain workers for entirely new sorts of careers. They included companies like Macy’s, Northrop Grumman and Rubbermaid, and police forces and prison agencies from across Maryland and West Virginia.
Some millworkers came to the job fair with hope. Tanya Bowen, a storeroom supervisor at the mill, said she wept when she read an email announcing the closure. But she was soon contacted on LinkedIn by recruiters she hoped to meet with at the fair.
Growing up in Frostburg, Bobby Willison longed to get a well-paying job at the mill. He finally did a year and a half ago, working in the calendar room, where paper for magazines and wall calendars is coated and cut down to size.
He’s disappointed to be back on the job market so soon, but said he understands that, at 36 and with no wife or kids yet, he’s in a better situation than many of his colleagues.
“It’s going to be absolutely devastating for them,” Willison said. “I’m going to be able to move on a lot quicker. It breaks my heart.”
Brandon Butler, the Allegany County administrator, is counting on people like Willison as he looks to steady the region’s economy in the wake of the shutdown. The biggest challenge, he said, is it means fewer stable, well-paying jobs to retain and attract young people.
He acknowledged that means countering a long-term industrial decline. But he pointed to businesses like Schroeder Industries, Berry Plastics and Hunter Douglas as chances to buck those trends. They might not be as big as the Luke Mill, or the Kelly Springfield tire factory in Cumberland that closed in the 1980s. But they’re what’s left, and they’re growing, he said.
The county’s unemployment rate is about 5.5%, higher than Maryland’s and the nation’s 3.8% joblessness.
“You can focus on what we don’t have, and what we’ve lost over the years, or you can focus on using the skills that are out there in our community right now that can propel us forward,” Butler said.
Even among environmentalists who have long maligned Luke Mill’s pollution, the job losses are worrisome.
David Smedick works on the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign for the group’s Maryland chapter, and he said closures of polluting facilities like the one in Luke remind him that there needs to be thought and effort put toward new jobs on the other side.
That’s why recently passed state legislation known as the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which Gov. Larry Hogan is still considering for his potential signature or veto, includes measures to train workers in new, environmentally friendly industries.
“You’ve got to make sure in the green economy there are family-sustaining jobs,” he said. “It’s a conversation we can’t avoid anymore.”
Still, some in and around Luke hold a modicum of hope that May 31 won’t be the last day steam blows down the Potomac River valley from the mill’s stacks. At the town hall prayer meeting, the community asked God for a new mill owner to step in, and Strong said union officials haven’t ruled out the possibility.
“The last thing we want to do is give false hope,” he said. “Anything could happen.”
They have reason for at least some optimism: After Verso closed a similar facility in Wickliffe, Ky., in 2016, a Chinese investor reopened the plant last year. It rose from the ashes of closure with a new name: Phoenix Paper Wickliffe.