NATCHEZ — Darryl Grennell can remember growing up in Natchez and smelling an odd odor in the air coming from the International Paper mill.
What smelled funky to Grennell was a welcomed aroma for others.
“I would ask the older people what that odor was and they would say to me, ‘That’s the smell of money,'” said Grennell, who is now president of the Adams County Board of Supervisors.
“That company fed many people and provided college educations for a lot of people all because of the jobs it provided to our community,” he said.
Ten years ago, the company’s Natchez mill shut down because of a poor market for the high-quality wood pulp it produced.
The company announced in early 2003 that it would be closing the Natchez mill.
The mill opened in Natchez in 1950. The closure left 640 employees without jobs and devastated the local economy, Grennell said.
“I always heard growing up that if International Paper shut down, you might as well turn off the lights in Natchez and leave,” Grennell said. “Of course we found that eventually not to be true, but it was such a dramatic episode for everyone here in Natchez at the time that we had no idea what was going to happen.”
IP was the third major industry to close in as many years in Natchez with Titan Tire closing in April 2001 and Johns Manville closing in September 2002. Those closings decreased the assessed value of the county’s sample tax roll by more than $2 million and resulted in the county being nearly $800,000 short of its budget in 2004.
Apart from direct impacts to the local economy, other areas, such as the Natchez-Adams School District, also took a hit. The school district’s overall enrollment went down 128 students in 2004.
Before the IP closure, enrollment at Cathedral School was on the rise, but the school’s enrollment decreased by 30 the following year.
Trinity Episcopal Day School officials projected its enrolment would stay the same.
Adams County Christian School suffered the largest non-public school decrease in enrollment dropping from 560 to 508.
Grennell said, however, some of the local higher-education facilities saw an increase in students.
“I was teaching at Alcorn at the time, and I saw a significant increase in students and a majority of them were former IP employees,” Grennell said. “The State of Mississippi had provided some funding for retraining for the employees of IP, so a lot of them went back to school and went on to finish school.”
Measuring the overall impact of the mill closing is difficult, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said, because of all the indirect jobs the mill also provided.
“It was a tremendous vacuum for this community not only because it was your major, largest employer, but there were so many indirect jobs like the forestry community that were also devastated,” Russ said. “When you start talking about 2 million tons of wood annually being consumed there and then it just goes away, that’s going to have a tremendous impact on any community.”
Despite the major impact on the local economy from the mill’s closure, both Grennell and Russ said a light finally appears to be at the end of the tunnel.
Rentech purchased the 476-acre land where the mill once operated in 2008 with the hopes of building a coal-to-liquids fuel facility. The company scrapped those plans in late 2011.
In April, the county announced it had a binding contract to buy the property and borrowed $9.5 million to finance the purchase.
County and local economic development officials are currently marketing the land, which Russ said is a great asset for the area.
“The land is a tremendous opportunity for us to work to fill that void in with high-quality employment for the manufacturing and service sector,” Russ said. “In my opinion, it’s probably the best, largest developed site on the river.”
And despite all the negative effects of the mill closing, Russ said it did teach Mississippi and Louisiana officials a valuable lesson.
“It taught us the lesson of not putting all of our eggs into one basket, but instead having a broad spectrum of business and industry,” Russ said. “In the economy now, we would much rather have six industries with 200 employees than to have us exposed to one major employer giving us another big lick like that again and having such a tremendous impact on our region.
“It was a very hard lesson, but one we learned from IP.”