Waiting for a phoenix to emerge from the ashes
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last story in staff reporter John DeMont’s series on the fallout from the closure of the Bowater mill in Queens County.
Under normal circumstances, when summer arrives in Queens County, the coffee drinkers inside Liverpool’s sole Tim Hortons are talking about getting out to the cottage.
The guys elbowing to the bar at the Captain Barss pub would be contemplating what lures to use to catch bass in the Mersey River.
The folks stopping to yak in the Sobeys, Superstore and Home Hardware parking lots —where much of the daily small-town socializing takes place — would be debating how this year’s Privateer Days festival (starting Thursday) is likely to stack up against those of yo re.
Last week, though, Corey Hartlen’s mind was filled with less-tranquil thoughts.
The owner of a two-bay garage in Brooklyn was thinking about how quiet it was now that the drone of the paper mill down the road had gone silent and the 18-wheelers carrying paper no longer thundered by his door.
The 35-year-old was also thinking about how odd it is to no longer see the columns of steam billowing from the mill’s stacks. The steam was a comforting sight that welcomed him home whenever he had been away for too long.
Mostly, the married father of two young children was thinking about what the mill’s closure will mean to his business, which was already down some 40 per cent from this time last year.
“Our goal was to expand into something bigger," he said.
“Now we will just have to put it on the back burner while we see what is going to happen."
Hartlen’s shoulders sag a bit when he says this. Like everyone in Queens County, he’s still shocked that Resolute Forest Products of Montreal shut the Bowater Mersey mill in Brooklyn within six months of receiving a government rescue package.
There’s anger toward the local mill officials who delivered the bad news. And even some simmering resentment directed at Resolute’s home province of Quebec, where some think their jobs have gone.
In Queens County, tough times are undeniably ahead.
Liverpool’s downtown already has its share of For Sale, For Rent and Closed for Business signs.
Even before the mill closure, real estate agents said it was hard to find a buyer for 200-year-old houses going for about half what they would fetch in a Halifax suburb.
Now, word is that the mill’s closure reduces Liverpool’s tax base by $800,000 a year.
Every couple of days, a local pipefitter, electrician or plumber who used to work at the mill makes the agonizing decision to begin shuttling back and forth to a job in the Alberta oilsands.
“The crystal ball at this point is not very clear," said David Chandler, a retired Bowater Mersey executive and longtime community volunteer.
But ask around and it is also easy to discover that beneath the shock, some people feel a sense of relief. They say it was just a matter of time until the mill closed, and its slow death was sucking the life out of the workers and their families.
“Queens County people do things differently," said Christopher Clarke, an Englishman who worked his way up the Bowater Mersey organization and later became mayor of Liverpool.
“Other places wait for government to come forward to help.
We tend to do things ourselves."
Elizabeth Mitton, who works behind the receptionist’s desk at Hartlen’s garage, is a case in point. Her husband Reid had been a papermaker at the mill for 27 years when it shut. But they always knew this day was coming.
So Reid worked nights and weekends doing diving work at a local aquaculture farm to earn extra money.
A month ago, they sold the home where they had lived with their three children and bought a smaller one with lower mortgage payments.
“He’s just not willing to go out west," Elizabeth said. “He’ll find something."
Just what that something will be is a matter of intense debate in Queens County. The province has appointed Ron Smith, a former chief financial officer at Emera — and a Yarmouth native — to chart a way forward for the area.
Nobody thinks the plant will ever reopen. But people say that surely someone, somewhere, will do something with the vast tracts of woodland and the Brooklyn power plant.
There’s even rampant speculation that Irving Shipbuilding could use the mill’s docks in its naval warship work.
“I’m confident that a phoenix will somehow emerge from the ashes," Clarke said.
History, after all, is in the place’s favour. The people of Liverpool were tough and enterprising enough to make their town a privateering centre during the War of 1812.
Later, it was a fishing and shipbuilding hub. In the 1920s, Liverpool sea captains ran booze into Prohibition America. In 1929, the Mersey pulp and paper mill arrived. The jobs brought workers from across North America and a level of prosperity to Queens County.
At the mill’s peak — before the paper industry began its precipitous slide in the late 1990s — some 1,000 people worked there, or in the company’s woodlands.
“I spent my life at that company," Atwood Dexter, 83, said last week as he stood in Brooklyn looking at his old place of employment.
“They were great years."
Now, the people of Queens County just want them back again.