Responding to the Mill Closure, Part 2

I assume there is a whole generation of citizens who are unacquainted with the wisdom of Mae West.  For those who don’t know her, Mae West was an actress and screenwriter during the early years of the American film industry.  She was famous for many notable one-liners, but my favorite is, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor.  Believe me, rich is better.”

I am encouraged by the response of community leaders to the impending closure of the IP mill in Millersburg.  Representatives of local businesses and government met earlier this week to come up with ideas about how to respond to the closure.  I don’t think there will be any quick solution to the problems created by this blow to the economy, but I know the community needs to actively work together to make something positive happen.

A front-page newspaper story about the meeting inspired a retired IP worker to call me with some ideas about possible reuse of the site.  These kinds of connections are the foundation of long-term solutions.  A meeting scheduled for next month with Oregon’s economic development director will also send a message that Albany-Millersburg  is not simply waiting around to see what happens.  The more energy and activity that can be created around the issue, the greater the likelihood the site will return to productive use.

The mill closure may seem like an abstract problem to people who don’t know any IP employees.  The plant’s location in Millersburg may also cause Albany residents to think that the effects here will be relatively small.  A former mill manager estimated that for every job lost at the plant, three jobs would disappear in the surrounding communities.  Suppliers, contractors, professionals, and merchants will all feel the loss of so many high-paying jobs.  Direct revenue loss to Albany city government will not be as high as it is in Millersburg, but the projected loss next year could cover the salaries and benefits of as many as four employees.

To paraphrase Mae West, I’ve been employed and I’ve been unemployed.  Believe me, employed is better.  I think it’s a worthy goal to unite behind an increased community effort to retain existing jobs, create new jobs, and assist those who are currently without work.  Albany’s Strategic Plan places heavy emphasis on building a healthy economy, recognizing that economic security is a fundamental part of making the town a good place to live.  The first response is a good one that needs to be sustained by the whole community.

Losing the Paper Mill

Today’s (October 22) announcement that International Paper will be closing its local mill is a sobering reminder of the state of the international economy and its relationship to what happens in Albany.  The closure is also, I’m sure, a devastating blow to the families directly affected by the job losses.

Cathy Ingalls from the Democrat-Herald sent me an e-mail this morning asking how the closure would affect Albany city government.  I responded with the following message:

“The closure almost certainly will have an effect on the local housing market which could further depress new home and, possibly, commercial construction.  Declining construction activity directly affects our Community Development Department.  Albany city government receives no direct revenue from IP, but if Albany businesses that are suppliers to IP close, we could lose revenue as a result.

I think the greatest effect on us is the knowledge that more than 230 families in our area will be hurt by the closure.  Our job is to serve people by trying to make the community a better place.  Losing some of the community’s best paying jobs is a serious blow to that effort.”

I have already learned that my first impression of the effects on Albany was wrong.  Fire Chief John Bradner reminded me that we have a contract with the Albany Rural Fire District, which is directly affected by this closure.  The City could lose several hundred thousand dollars, depending on what happens with the assessed value of the property.  Public Works Director Diane Taniguchi-Dennis informed me that another business in Millersburg was dependent on International Paper for sewer service, and they will now need to work directly with us.  Service to industry can be complicated if their waste contains materials that are difficult to treat.

Mill closures are not new to Oregon, and I saw the effects of a particularly hard one when I served as the city administrator in Oakridge.  The most important lesson I learned from that event, more than 20 years ago, was the need to show the world that the community is a resilient place.  Bad things happen to everyone and every place at some point in time.  The challenge is to recover from the blow and begin work on shaping the future.  As the plant in Millersburg closes, a major new industrial facility is planned for construction at Oregon Freeze Dry in Albany and a medical school is being built in Lebanon.

Shortly after I received the call from Mayor Konopa about the mill closure, I was asked by my professional association to do some volunteer work in a remote area of Ethiopia for a few weeks in December.  The assignment is to help a community of nearly 100,000 people come up with a plan for dealing with solid waste (garbage).  The local government currently does limited collection and then dumps the refuse in a dry creek bed in the nearby desert.

Our starting point is so high relative to most of the world that what to us looks like a catastrophe would be a normal day in many places.  The misery of others is small consolation in troubled times, but it should serve as a reminder that our greatest blessing is our ability to face challenges with the sure knowledge we can overcome them.

Flags and Freedom

Albany made national news this week when a local apartment complex manager told tenants they could be evicted for displaying flags outside their homes or on their vehicles.  The ban has since been rescinded, and the story has appropriately disappeared from the national spotlight.  We learned that people all over the country care deeply about our country’s flag and our right to display it as we choose.

Several years ago, I was a volunteer Scout leader at my church when one of our parents proposed a great fund-raising project.  Our troop would purchase 50 U.S. flags, mount them on an eight-foot length of PVC pipe, and then sell flag subscriptions to local residents.  Subscribers would pay $25 for our Scouts to put up the flags in front of their homes at sunrise on Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, and the Fourth of July and take them down at sunset.  The idea was a big hit in La Grande, and the troop earned good money for their efforts.  Somehow, I found myself in charge of the project over a three- or four-year period in the late 1990s and early years of this decade.

We had a great group of young men in our Scout troop in those days, and I generally enjoyed getting up before dawn on holidays to help put up the flags.  We received many compliments from our subscribers and local residents; so the project also seemed to build some community good will.  The day after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, my son and I delivered the flags to subscribers and asked that they display them for the next week.  We could do very little for the victims of the tragedy in its immediate aftermath, but we were at least able to show we cared.

Our Scout troop eventually earned enough money from our flag project and exhausted our volunteers to the point that we decided to end the program by selling the flags to our subscribers.  I purchased one for our family, and we still put it out on holidays when we are home.  I need to confess, however, that I have never equated patriotism with putting up an American flag in front of my house.  My father, a career U.S. Naval officer who saw combat in WWII and Korea, taught me that patriotism is measured by the sacrifices you make for your country rather than by the presence of a flag decal on your car window.

I trudge out to put up our flag on selected holidays because I care about what it represents.  I passionately believe we should be able to govern ourselves and government of the people, by the people, and for the people is a wonderful and important responsibility.   A flag is no guarantor of this fundamental right, but at least it shows we still care.