Saturday, October 22, 2005

From Aberdeen and Cosmopolis, WA...

Weyerhaeuser Cutbacks Hit Depressed Towns
By CURT WOODWARD, Associated Press Writer
Sat Oct 22, 3:33 AM ET

ABERDEEN, Wash. - Calvin O'Brien followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather when he took a job at the sawmill here, earning wages few other jobs could provide in this blue-collar town.

The tradition ended Friday when O'Brien, 28, learned that Weyerhaeuser planned to shutter the mill by year's end. The news came hard in an area that has survived difficult years of decline in the timber industry.

"We lived a good life," O'Brien said. "I was hoping to make a good life for my family, but there it is."

Weyerhaeuser announced it would close the 81-year-old sawmill and a 50-year-old pulp mill in neighboring Cosmopolis, eliminating 342 hourly and salaried positions.

The Federal Way-based company cited high operating costs and aging machinery among other problems as reasons for the closings and said they were part of broader plans to fine-tune its operations.

About 245 jobs — which have an average annual wage approaching $50,000 — would be lost in Cosmopolis, sapping about 40 percent of the tiny town's tax base, said mayor Vickie Raines. The remaining 97 jobs will be cut from the large-log sawmill here. A mill that processes smaller logs will remain open.

The large-log mill here is expected to close at the end of 2005. The Cosmopolis mill is expected to operate into the second half of 2006, he said.

Gov. Christine Gregoire said she would dispatch Department of Employment Security representatives to help identify training and benefits available to workers.

"I will do everything in my power to help the workers and their families," she said.

Rumors that Weyerhaeuser might close were nothing new to the area, but the announcement still came as a shock, said Aberdeen Mayor Dorothy Voege.

"When it comes, we go through disbelief and panic, which I think are logical responses," she said.

Some workers were angry that they learned of the job cuts from friends, acquaintances and news reports rather than from the company.

Lucas Bunch said he first heard the mill was closing when a nurse told his pregnant wife the news during a checkup.

"This paycheck was the best thing I had going for me," Bunch said. "I've missed first birthdays, I've missed funerals — I've missed everything for this place."

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said federal securities requirements stipulate that the company file its closure plans early, before financial markets opened on the East Coast.

"Nobody likes it. I wish we didn't have to do it that way," he said.

The job cuts mark yet another hardship for Grays Harbor County, which has suffered since 1980 from timber industry woes, said regional economist Dick Conway.

Metropolitan areas elsewhere in the state have benefited from the growth in the technology industry and other changes, but rural, blue-collar Grays Harbor County is too far away from cities to share in those fortunes, Conway said.

The loss of 342 jobs is sizable in a county that, according to Conway's estimates, has just 24,900 jobs in all.

"For an economy like Grays Harbor it's a severe blow," he said. "That county probably more than any county in the state has suffered from the decline in the timber industry."

At the Maxi Mini Mart in Cosmopolis, owners Kirk and Mark Maynard sat with employee Cris Steuermann reading an early newspaper story about the closing and discussing the looming effect on the town's economy.

On a typical day at the store, Weyerhaeuser workers and others with jobs tied to the forest products company constantly stop in to fuel up, buy a snack and shoot the breeze, Steuermann said.

"It's not just people I see every day. It's people I know," she said. "Everybody around here is tied to that company in some way."

My comments:

The cutback in logging, the reduction in port traffic, the serious decline in commercial fishing have all taken their toll on Grays Harbor County's hard working, blue collar population. It's a sorry, sad end to a great tradition.

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