LOUISVILLE — Winston County, which has been inundated with plant closures and manufacturer downsizing in the last decade, received a much-needed boost earlier this month when Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Group (NYSE: GP) announced it would reopen its plywood facility in Louisville and hire 200 people for operations to begin in June.
“Georgia-Pacific reopening in Louisville is great news,” said Joel O’Briant, director of the Winston County Economic Development District and former human resources manager for Georgia-Pacific’s Louisville plant. “I see things getting better from here on out.”
The plant, which was established in 1966, closed in December 2000, affecting about 600 direct and indirect jobs.
“We understand how important it is when we’re there and when we’re not and it’s always good to be there,” said Georgia-Pacific spokesman James Malone.
In the last several years, Georgia-Pacific, the second largest forest and paper company in the world, shifted its focus from traditional forest and paper products to branded consumer products such as Brawny, Coronet, Dixie and Quilted Northern through acquisitions to concentrate on growing its core paper business.
In February, Georgia-Pacific, which also makes chemicals, gypsum wallboard and dispensing equipment, announced it would sell its Delair, N.J., gypsum paper mill and reevaluate its gypsum plants in Thorold, Ontario, San Leandro, Calif., and Pryor, Okla.
In March, Georgia-Pacific announced a strategic separation of the company’s consumer products and packaging business from its building products and distribution businesses.
So far, the strategy has been successful. In 2001, sales increased 12.6% from the previous year to $25 million. Net income was $407 million. The company’s employee base increased 6.2% to 75,000 employees. Positive indicators paved the way for reopening the Louisville plant.
“The market for lumber and plywood logs is down because several mills have closed, such as the IP (International Paper) mill in Morton,” said O’Briant. “I heard (April 11) that a sawmill is closing in Ackerman, just north of us. When you take those mills off the market, the competition for buying timber is greatly decreased.”
Speculation swirled that Georgia-Pacific decided to focus on its U.S. operations after the federal government slapped heavy duties on nearly $6 billion of Canadian softwood lumber shipments, which supply about one-third of the U.S. market, after negotiations collapsed in March.
“My initial take on that is there is no relationship because structural panels is a totally different market and process than straight lumber, but I haven’t studied the Canadian Softwood Lumber Agreement and the tariffs involved,” said Malone. “From a strategy standpoint, I would find that highly unlikely because we’ve stated from day one that we were trying to get in a position to reopen.”
Full production is targeted for June 1, with the initial hiring of 200 employees, said David Key, Georgia-Pacific area manager and Louisville plant manager.
“With the exception of a few, all of the hourly people that we had to lay off back in December 2000 will be asked to come back,” he said.
Roger Whitlock, director of the East Central Community College Workforce Center in Decatur, said transition training would be supplied for Georgia-Pacific employees.
“When they start bringing people back, there will be a little different expectation and we’ll help with transition from old to new expectations, screening and assuring the capabilities of new hires,” he said. “We’ll customize their needs. We’ve maintained a Georgia-Pacific training project all along.”
Reopening the Louisville plywood plant will also spur about 300 to 400 spin-off jobs for contractors, suppliers and other industry-related companies.
Last year, Winston County leaders took action to turn around the rural area’s sagging economy. In the last decade, the county of approximately 20,000 had lost more than 3,000 manufacturing jobs. In June, the unemployment rate hovered around 10%.
In 1994, Spartus, the largest clockmaker in the world, closed its Winston County plant, affecting 1,500 workers. Soon after, TRW, manufacturer of airbags and seatbelts, closed its plant, affecting 900 jobs. When Anjelica Uniforms moved its cut-and-sew plants out of the country, the Winston County facility was closed and 150 jobs were lost.
After Georgia-Pacific closed its Louisville plant in 2000, Southern Natural followed with 60 layoffs and has continued to downsize considerably.
The Winston County economy is bouncing back. Since Taylor Machine Works significantly cut back production at its 1,000-worker plant in Louisville, it has regained ground to around 850 employees.
Teeter’s Floor Products Distribution Center, which opened after the Spartus closure, created 80 jobs. Sylvester Specialty Welding, which makes aerators for catfish ponds and municipality sewage lagoons, is a new plant that shows promise and Tempco Steel, which recently opened a new structural steel plant with 12 employees, has “lots of potential,” O’Briant said.
WCM Inc., producer of cabinets, and Polo Custom Products, a division of MC Industries, opened manufacturing plants in Winston County last year, adding 100 and 60 jobs, respectively.
“WCM is bursting at the seams with more orders than they know what to do with,” O’Briant said. “Polo had two record months back to back and plans to go to 100 employees.”
With the help of the Mississippi Development Authority, Winston County recently bought a building to house an incubation program, which will open soon.
“Right now, we’re working with three major prospects that are looking to come to the area,” said O’Briant. “Georgia-Pacific’s announcement will help the recruitment process. If we just get one of those to come here, then we’re back on top.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or firstname.lastname@example.org</a.
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