IP: Back in business

Published 10:53 am Tuesday, July 10, 2012

By Dale Liesch

Staff Writer

FRANKLIN, VA — International Paper’s Franklin mill began operations last week to produce fluff pulp, more than two years after the mill’s closure resulted in the loss of 1,100 jobs.

The mill now employs more than 200 workers.

The company converted one of six paper machines to produce the absorbent material, a key ingredient in products such as baby diapers, adult incontinence and feminine hygiene products, and medical wipes.

The mill is expected to produce 840 tons of the material a day when it hits full production, said mill spokeswoman Julie Brennan.

“We still have things to fine tune,” Brennan said. “We’re still working through some start-up issues.”

Running the converted machine that hadn’t been operated in more than two years was a big project, Brennan said, in addition to preparing the rest of the mill for start up.

“These things never come without roadblocks,” she said. “We’ve chipped away at all of them.”

“On behalf of the entire Franklin Team, we are very proud to embark on a new future for this facility,” said Franklin mill manager Allison Magness.  “We have accomplished so much in the past year to get the mill up and running.  I want to thank our entire Franklin team, those on the repurposing team, contractors, suppliers, all of the additional resources companywide and the local community, who have supported the start-up of the mill.  It has been an amazing year of planning and execution that has brought us to where we are today.  For us, this is the beginning of a new chapter, and we look forward to becoming the best at making fluff pulp.”

Magness said the mill began manufacturing operations during the week of July 2.  She emphasized that the facility is in the early stages of operation and will now be focused on transitioning to full production.

“This is an exciting opportunity for our company.  We were able to invest in a facility where we knew we had good assets and great people,” said International Paper Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Faraci, who recently toured the southeastern Virginia operation. “There is a strong business case for this uniquely American product made from southern softwood that will help meet a global market demand.  We think this move will further strengthen the company’s presence in the worldwide fluff pulp market.”

The opening of the mill in Isle of Wight County represents an almost $90 million investment, but also means additional revenue for local government coffers in the form of machinery and tools taxes.

The city received about $1.1 million in funds in fiscal year 2011-2012 from a revenue sharing agreement with Isle of Wight County.

Franklin City Manager Randy Martin said he isn’t expecting any funds from that agreement this year, noting that the 2013-2014 budget cycle is the earliest the city could benefit from the mill’s repurposing because the county has to collect the money and then pay the city.

Martin said while he’s been in communication with county officials, he hasn’t been given an estimate for how much in tax revenue the new mill operation will bring in.

“The job creation, salaries and the tax revenue it creates should have a positive impact,” he said. “I don’t know how much it will be.”

Downtown businesses have already reaped the benefits of IP’s decision to repurpose the mill, cashing in on the activity there prior to start up.

“So far, the lead in to start up has been good with new workers and contractors using our hotels and restaurants,” said Dan Howe, executive director of the Downtown Franklin Association. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and we still have a long way to go, but it’s a positive step.”

Texas Nails and Spa; Simply Distributing, a vacuum sales and service shop; and Downtown Clearance Center, a furniture store, have all held grand opening ceremonies in June. Howe gives at least partial credit for that to increased activity at the mill.

“I think we’re going in the right direction,” Howe said.

Amanda Jarratt, president and CEO of Franklin Southampton Economic Development Inc., said the mill announcement coupled with the announcement that Enviva, a wood pellet manufacturer coming to Southampton County, will have a groundbreaking this month is important news that will strengthen the area’s ability to attract industry.

“We added the workforce and environment to make these things successful,” she said. “It’s important to showcase we have the environment here to allow business to be successful.”

Teresa Beale, executive director of the Franklin Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s nice to see people back at work and the facility back on line.

“The first word I think of is exciting,” she said. “It’s an exciting day for the community.”

(Dale Liesch is a Staff Writer with the Tidewater News in Franklin, VA, a sister publication of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald.)