HOQUIAM, Wash. – Nearly 300,000 people in Washington are still unemployed and looking for work. But there was reason to celebrate Monday in coastal Grays Harbor County – where the unemployment rate is tied for the highest in the state. A shuttered paper mill there recently roared back to life. With it came 175 jobs.
It was a party atmosphere inside the long, narrow shipping warehouse at Harbor Paper. Several hundred people milled about as dignitaries, including Governor Chris Gregoire, mounted a makeshift stage.
It was nearly a year-and-a-half ago this mill shut down putting 250 people out of work -- at a time when the economy offered no hope for a laid off worker. In June of 2011, David Quigg, whose family ran the business described the meeting where they let the employees know.
“That was real hard because I put together a draft of what we would say," he said while holding back tears. "And you just do it because it’s work … but then it was real. That was hard.”
Quigg always held out hope the mill could reopen. Recently it was sold to Harbor Paper, a new company. It will be run by the mill’s old CEO, John Begley, who says they’ll still make 100-percent recycled paper -- something this mill was famous for.
But he says it’s a much leaner operation.
“We really attacked our cost structure," Begley says. "We have 175 employees. The old company had 230. We’ve increased productivity by about ten percent which reduces your overall costs.”
And Harbor Paper has locked in a customer-in-chief: International Forest Products which supplies stores like Staples.
The fact this paper mill is back open again is nothing short of a miracle.
"I don't expect that we'll see many more shut down pulp and paper mills in the Northwest start up again," says Hakam Ekstrom, wood products market analyst in Seattle. He says it’s been a sorrowful few decades for Northwest paper mills. Those that didn’t invest in the latest technologies shut down.
From Ekstrom’s perspective, the mill at Grays Harbor has become cost-efficient enough to reopen for a niche market -- recycled paper -- but , he says, it’s managers can’t stop here.
"They're competing with other mills around the world and they have to stay competitive and keep investing."
No one is more determined to help this reopened plant succeed than Ron Grant. He mans a station near the end of the assembly line.
He describes the work. “We basically take 77 ½ inch rolls, big diameter rolls and we convert it into 8/12 x 11 copy paper.”
Grant worked here for 16 years before he was laid-off when Grays Harbor Paper closed. He says he and his wife lost their home as a result.
“It was tough," Grant says. "It was very tough. “
Grant got some retraining and his commercial driver’s license. Road work with the state helped pay the bills. Then one day the phone rang.
“I saw the caller ID was Harbor Paper," he recalls. "And I looked at the wife and she looked at me and said ‘why don’t we answer that phone.’ You didn’t have to ask me twice.”
To Grant, feeling the hum of this plant under his feet -- and knowing that he's getting a paycheck feels pretty good.
"Without a doubt,"he says. "I mean it’s something we all when we were out of worked hoped and dreamed would come back someday.”
You hear the sound of that dream come true with the noon steam whistle. It’s a signal to the whole community that the mill is back.