Bay County leaders discuss impending paper mill closure
Hundreds of employees at a paper mill in Panama City will be out of a job in less than two months, and local leaders are vowing to help in any way they can.
At an emergency meeting on Monday, Bay County commissioners expressed shock that WestRock, the company that owns and operates the mill, announced its impending closure via press release last week without notifying workers sooner.
“Sixty days is just not acceptable,” said Bay County Commissioner Griff Griffitts. “Decisions like this aren’t made overnight, obviously.”
Bay County is still recovering from Hurricane Michael, more than three years after the storm made landfall in Mexico Beach. The pandemic and recent wildfires have brought more challenges to its communities as they rebuild. “We’ve been through a lot,” Griffitts said. “This is just another challenge for us to face. It’s going to be tough, but I think we can do it with everybody working together.”
In a press release, WestRock said to continuing operations at the paper mill, where 450 people work, would be too costly. Generations of families have been employed at the mill over its 92-year lifespan, and it’s had a series of different owners since International Paper Co. built it in 1930.
A few residents who are directly affected by the closure spoke at the meeting. Michael McCall works at WestRock. He says that he recently worked a 68-hour week and has a child at home. “We’re all dedicated.”
He asked commissioners if there was anything more they could do to stop the mill from closing, such as tax incentives. “Obviously it’s a business decision, I get that,” McCall said, his voice shaking. “It would seem to me that it would be in our best interest to try, at least try. Whatever investment needs to be made as a city, I think that would be worth it.”
Virginia Bishop, 33, told commissioners that her husband has worked at the mill for eight years, and that he’d found out about the closure through the news media. “With inflation costs, with gas prices, with our kids, our mortgage — you name it, everything — we’ve already been so close on our payments to where we just can’t do it,” she said. “It’s just wrong.”
WestRock has not returned an interview request for this story.
County commissioners expressed sympathy for those who spoke at the meeting and promised to hold a job fair for former WestRock employees in the coming weeks, possibly closer to June when the plant is scheduled to cease operations.
CareerSource Gulf Coast will offer a range of services to help those employees, said Kim Bodine, executive director. And this isn’t the first time she’s assisted employees who were laid off at a paper mill in the region. When the mill in Port St. Joe closed, hundreds of people were out of work. CareerSource helped them pay for workforce training and education, find new jobs and even transition into a new career altogether, she said.
“We did have individuals who went back to school and became nurses, registered nurses,” she said. About half of 600 people they were helping find new employment were in a workforce training or classroom education program to further their skills.
Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki says city officials are willing to do anything they can to help the milll's employees. He says he witnessed their loyalty first-hand soon after Hurricane Michael when he saw them working hard at the mill even though many of their homes were unlivable.
“We are going to be loyal to these people. OK,” Brudnicki said, while addressing the county commission. “We’re going to do everything we can as a city, shoulder-to-shoulder with you all, to do whatever we can to make sure that they get placed somewhere else. If they’ve got to be subsidized somewhere else, we’ll work on trying to do that. I don’t want to see anybody that loyal that’s worked that long for a company to be that mistreated.”
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A major employer in Panama City is set to shutter this summer.
The WestRock paper mill has announced plans to permanently close by June 6.
About 450 people work at the paper mill, the company wrote in a press release sent out last week. Those employees will get severance and help finding a new job in accordance with company policy and union agreements.
The company explains it would cost too much to continue its operations in Panama City.
Bay County commissioners will meet on Monday at 5 p.m. Central time inside the county's government center, located at 840 W. 11th St. in Panama City, to discuss the paper mill's expected closure.