March 18, 2010 3:41:00 PM
The Domtar Columbus paper mill closing is tragic and a blow to the local economy. The facility, forever known by many as simply "Weyerhaeuser," has for decades been an economic cornerstone of Lowndes County, and its employees have played a significant role in the civic life of this community. This is sad news, indeed.
The plant on Old Macon Road, which makes coated paper for magazines, was confronting a magazine industry that has shrunk -- literally. Many magazines in recent years have shrunk in size, dimension-wise, to reduce printing costs. And, with advertisers placing fewer ads, magazines have become thinner as well. Many titles have ceased publication. Circulation, overall, was down more than 2 percent in 2009 compared to 2008.
Recently, the plant has been "unprofitable quarter after quarter," despite the good work by local employees, a spokeswoman said. And, it has been shutting down "off and on" over the past few years to save costs.
But that doesn''t make the news that 219 good-paying jobs will be gone by the end of April any easier to swallow. The plant closure is the largest layoff in the county in 10 years, according to the Columbus Lowndes Development Link.
Add those 219 people to the 3,460 the state Department of Employment Security said were unemployed in Lowndes County in January -- a 13.4 percent unemployment rate for the month. Inside the Columbus city limits, the state puts the January unemployment rate at 19.9 percent -- one in five adults unemployed.
Decades ago, when first constructed by Weyerhaeuser, the mill was a significant feather in Columbus'' cap. In those days long before Severstal and our budding aerospace industries, the plant attracted skilled, educated, well-paid workers that added to the character -- and tax base -- of Columbus. We bemoan the fact that a large, publicly traded company has left Lowndes County, when we take such pride in attracting them. And with the market for paper shrinking, we believe the Link will have an uphill climb in attracting a new business to the plant.
For its overall strategy during the economic downturn, the Link is wisely "taking this time to set ourselves up for another win," Link CEO Joe Higgins has said, with the marketing of two megasites and preparing infrastructure around the Golden Triangle Regional Airport for future growth.
Higgins has said 2009 was the county''s second-worst year in the past six for industry expansions or openings. Still, that amounts to $150 million to $175 million in projects.
We hope Monday''s bad news isn''t a harbinger of another bad year, and that the wins eventually outnumber the losses, as the county settles in to a tough 2010.