PANAMA CITY — After receiving word of Bay County’s iconic paper mill closing, county officials have jumped in to help those affected.
County commissioners held an emergency meeting Monday evening to discuss and present solutions for those losing their jobs with the closure of the WestRock mill.
WestRock made the announcement Thursday afternoon that the 92-year-old mill will cease operations after June 6, leaving 450 employees without a job. In the days since, county leaders have been working around the clock to provide resources and find strategies to help those who will be displaced.
Bay County Commissioner Robert Carroll said they pushed to have Monday’s meeting so residents knew county officials were fighting for them and actively looking for solutions.
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“We wanted all the workers out there to know, that got the surprise news of losing their jobs, that we’re here for them,” Carroll said. “We’re going to help put all the resources together between the EDA and Workforce, the chamber, all the business community, whether it’s a manufacturing facility, any type of facility, that we’re all here together, we’re in this community together.”
Officials offer solutions for those losing jobs
Commissioners began the meeting offering their condolences to the WestRock workers, saying they also were shocked by the announcement.
“You guys have put your lives and your passion into this, and we feel for each and every one of you that are going through this,” Carroll said. “But we wanted to get together. We survived this hurricane, the pandemic, all these things that keep getting thrown at us, and we’re gonna survive this as well.”
The meeting was followed by a series of three presentations, starting with Bay County Economic Development Alliance Director Becca Hardin. Hardin advised that her team is working with county agencies, as well as manufacturing companies and WestRock, to help the employees.
She also elaborated on plans for the paper mill facility and the property that is adjacent to its east terminal.
“At this point, we’re being told that they are getting the site ready to sell. They are repurposing the property for a new owner,” Hardin said. “It’s our understanding that, at this point, they do not have a current buyer, but we will continue to communicate with them and try to gain information so that we can make the best decisions on how to utilize that property going forward and making sure that it is the best use for our existing businesses in that area.”
Kim Bodine, executive director of CareerSource Gulf Coast, elaborated on the “rapid response program” county agencies are utilizing to help displaced workers.
The program aims to provide services for workers to quickly transition to re-employment, minimizing the duration of unemployment. Based on an initial assessment, CareerSource Gulf Coast will form a rapid response team and conduct worker informational sessions with the displaced workers.
“Rapid response programs are designed to support workers while they’re making that transition, whether it was through helping them look for another job or getting new skills training through classroom-based training, where we cover the cost of books, tuition, and some living expenses during that time,” Bodine said.
She added other employers are eager to get their hands on the WestRock workers, including the new manufacturers coming to the area. All this information will be on the CareerSource Gulf Coast website, Bodine said.
Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki made the last presentation. He spoke of seeing the mill workers still go to work after their houses were destroyed by Hurricane Michael in 2018.
“Loyalty is something that’s very, very important. And in this particular case, as (the commission) said earlier, everybody hasn’t been real loyal in this situation,” Brudnicki said. “We are going to be loyal to these people. We’re gonna do everything we can as a city, shoulder to shoulder with you all to do whatever we can to make sure they get placed somewhere else.”
Workers and families speak out
During the public forum portion of the meeting, local historian Tem Fontaine took to the podium to discuss how ingrained the mill is in local history and what its closure will mean for other industries.
“We’ve got three resources in Bay County. We’ve got sea, sand and trees,” Fontaine said. “The paper mill uses the trees for the landowners for a hundred miles out. Without that use of the trees, the landowners are going to lose part of the cycle of income that comes into their property.”
Multiple wives spoke for their husbands, who were working and could not attend the meeting. Virginia Bishop said she and her husband were upset that they learned about the closure from local media instead of WestRock.
“He was asleep. He’s a shift worker,” Bishop said. “I had to find out through the media. I had no clue. He had no clue. He got a text message saying you have a meeting tonight at this time and that’s it. No anything pertaining to what it was about.”
Bishop said the job loss will greatly affect her family on top of their current bills and inflation, something she isn’t prepared for.
Ashley Huff echoed Bishop’s statement, saying it’s not so simple for her husband to “find a new job” that would match his WestRock salary.
“When my husband makes over $100,000 a year, these jobs that are open right now in our area are not gonna pay him 60% of what that is and they’re not thinking about the insurance,” Huff said. “I have a medical condition and I have to go to Fort Walton Beach to the doctor. I have to have different expensive medications and treatment. And I can’t imagine all the other families that are gonna go through this, too.”
Mike McCall, a mill worker for six years, said speaking on the closure was hard for him but he wanted the commission to find any solutions to help him and his fellow employees.
“Last week I finished a 68-hour work week. I have a child home, too,” McCall said. “Just pleading with you guys. Try whatever you can.”
Overcoming this challenge
Commissioners closed the meeting with their comments. Commissioner Bill Dozier elaborated on his feelings on how WestRock employees were given such short notice.
“We’re going to do what we can, but us as government, we’re limited in what we can do, but we’ll do what we can within the parameters of what we have,” Dozier said. “And it’s a travesty the way that I heard about what had happened, as far as the announcement that came out to the employees and to the community. … This was very discouraging, very disgusting to me.”
Commissioners all said they hope WestRock listens to the concerns of the community, and they will continue to find solutions for the families affected by the closure.
“I really hope (WestRock) is paying attention to the comments about the severance package,” Commissioner Philip Grifetts said. “They deserve more than what they’re going to be given, that’s for sure, but I hope they’re paying attention. This community will stand together.”
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Panama City paper mill closing: Bay County officials discuss solutions