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Hard Times at the Mill: International Paper to Close Courtland Facility

  A north Alabama county is about it lose its biggest employer.  International Paper says it’s closing the paper mill in Lawrence County after forty three years of operation. After the first round of layoffs we take a look at how the town of Courtland and the residents are doing.

Courtland Alabama has a population of around seven hundred people and one big employer. The International Paper mill provided jobs to over a thousand Lawrence County workers, but according to International Paper spokeswoman Laura Gipson that is about to change…

            “That’s primarily due to a sluggish economy within the US and really the acceleration of electronic substitution for online filing and billing. International Paper made the decision to look at its mills that produce uncoated, free-sheet paper and ultimately the decision was made to close the Courtland mill.”

Workers at the mill made paper for magazines, envelopes and office copy machines.  Back in September, word that the plant would shut down sent shockwaves through the local workforce. Brian Turbfill has worked at the mill for eighteen years…

            “We were shocked, surprised and a little hurt,” he recalls. “We all worked hard to make it successful, and it has been.  So there is a lot of shock, a lot of hurt and people worried about the future.”

Turbfill thinks he can find a job. The catch is, it may mean moving…

            “This is home, North Alabama has been home all my life so, its tough,” says Turbfill. “I have a lot of friends that don’t have the skill set some of us do, I’m pretty confident they’re going to have to uproot their families and leave what they’ve called home all their life.”

Laura Gipson says the company has been doing what it can to help the workers…

            “Immediately, we did bring in employee assistance program, on-site councilors to deal with the immediate fall out of the announcement. Since that time we’ve brought in resume building assistance and interview coaching,” says Gipson. “Our primary focus has been to try and place as many workers at alternate facilities.”

Several hundred employees lined up outside the Courtland Baptist Church to hear from Alabama employers like Thyssenkrupp Steel, Alabama Power and even the department of corrections.  Neil Mickleson was there dropping off resumes. He is from Muscle Shoals and has worked at the Courtland mill for thirty three years.  He says he’s worried the “all for one and one for all” attitude among his co-workers could turn into a free for all if the new jobs do not appear.

        “Our thoughts are to take care of each other, we’ve always been a family at Courtland,” says Mickelson. “Courtland paper mill has always been a family and we’ve taken care of each other and that’s the way we are when we come in and that’s how we’re gonna be when we go out, we’re all gonna look out for each other.”

As the job fair began to wind down we found Scott Coffee in the parking lot.  He was sharing thoughts with people soon to be his former co-workers.  He has worked at the plan for twenty one year, but he says he is not bitter…

“I just appreciate the opportunity. IP gave me a good living, I was able to raise a good family and enjoy some things I desired to do by working there at IP,” says Coffee. “ I’ve been blessed, I have no regret, just hate to see it at a closing point, but they may decide to have a tender heart, a loving heart and say they might be open, they got an opportunity to open back up if they choose…I hope they do.”

There have been pleas from community members and even legislators to keep the mill open.  Some of these even made it to the desk of Governor Robert Bentley, who has talked with company officials…

            “We have talked to them, we’ve talked to them about whether or not incentives would help, even though we don’t have incentives in this state right now for existing businesses and that is something we might be working on in the next session.  But incentives probably would not save this plant.”

Bentley says while they may not be able to keep International Paper in Courtland, there could be other options…

            “We’re really looking at other companies to see if they would be interested in the site or that area. Certainly we have some good workers in the area, I mean, we can’t do it quickly, but we’re working to try and get some new industry in the area.”

The Courtland mill is expected to be shut down by the end of March.

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