Snowflake paper mill closure will cost hundreds of jobs

September 21, 2012

The largest private employer in the Northern Arizona town of Snowflake is closing. The town’s paper mill has been in operation for more than 50 years. KJZZ’s Al Macias tells how the loss of hundreds of jobs will affect communities in the White Mountains.

JOHN GROOTHUIZEN: Virtually everyone will leave the mill after dayshift on Oct. 5.

AL MACIAS: John Groothuizen is the production manager at the Catalyst paper mill, saying what many never expected to hear. The company says the plant was no longer profitable. Dropping demand for newsprint and overseas competition forced the closure. The paper mill has anchored Snowflake’s economy since the 1960s. It has provided jobs for generations of families like Robin Palmer’s.

ROBIN PALMER: My dad worked there for 30 something years, all while I was growing up. I was able to have a good life because my dad worked at the mill. And I was able to come back and I worked there myself for the last 20 years.

MACIAS: About 300 people from Snowflake and neighboring towns like Taylor worked at the mill earning as much as $60,000 to $80,000 a year. Naomi Hatch is a reporter for the local paper, the Silver Creek Herald. She says covering this story has been tough.

NAOMI HATCH: We didn’t think that it would ever close. It’s been here for over 50 years, so there was just the thought that it would always be here.

MACIAS: Here at one of the two grocery stores in the area, Kip Peterson says he worries about what the closure will mean for his business.

KIP PETERSON: My concern is just not knowing what effect it’s going to have on us. We know it will affect us, but to what degree.

MACIAS: He says he’s already noticed a difference in what shoppers are putting in their grocery carts.

PETERSON: I believe people are being a little more careful with their purchases, buying more of the basics, being a little tighter and not splurging.

MACIAS: Other local businesses are anxiously wondering if workers and their families will stay or move on. That uncertainty is also felt in the schools. Superintendent Hollis Merrill says the district has already endured budget cuts due to the loss of state funding and there could be more cuts if property tax collections from the shuttered paper mill decline.
HOLLIS MERRILL: We’re still playing football games on Friday nights. And all of our activities are still going on. So for these small towns, that’s very important. Kind of gives, you know, you forget about those things when you’re watching your kid play a ball game and those types of things. So I think that’s a pretty important role we play.

MACIAS: Still, the realization is bound to hit some people hard. Mert Williams has launched an effort to provide counseling and other resources through her church. She compares the emotional impact of the closure to a forest fire 10 years ago that burned half a million acres and destroyed homes and property 40 miles south of Snowflake.

MERT WILLIAMS: They’re going to suffer the same symptoms that the people at the Rodeo Chedeski fire has suffered.

MACIAS: On this day, Main Street, which runs through Snowflake and Taylor, is being repaved. These two communities like others in northeastern Arizona were settled in the late 19th century by Mormon settlers from Utah. Local leaders say the community spirit from the early families has passed onto their descendants. Even newcomers like production manager John Groothuizen note the strength of character the millworkers have shown as the mill’s final days grow closer.

GROOTHUIZEN: Well it’s really a tribute to the workers that we have here, the workforce we have here, the culture we have here. Its people have bowed up and said 'we’re not going to let this beat us. We’re going to finish this right.'

MACIAS: Like the new pavement being laid down over the old roadway, the residents of Snowflake and Taylor are hoping they too can rebuild their local economy.