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A perfect storm leaves Perry residents fearing the future

PERRY, Fla. – After a hurricane rolls through, a city’s usual worries are cleaning up and rebuilding. Perry wasn’t so lucky.

Less than three weeks after Hurricane Idalia hit the town of less than 7,000 people, Perry’s biggest employer announced it would permanently close on Nov. 16.

The Georgia-Pacific (GP) Foley Cellulose mill announced that nearly 525 employees would lose their jobs.

“Just disbelief,” said Ben Tuten, a forestry timber businessman who had worked with the mill, of the town’s reaction. “Utter disbelief.”

Georgia-Pacific has worked with its employees and the city to help find new jobs. GP is also working with local community and state agencies to provide additional support to employees and identify the most pressing needs to determine the best ways GP can help.

Alex Kelley, the Governor’s Chief of Staff and Secretary of Commerce has been personally involved in providing access to job fairs and employment services for all local companies and individuals affected by the closing of the Foley mill.

GP is also working with employees who are interested in transferring to other GP facilities.

Not only do the workers of the mill have to find new jobs, but independent contractors in Perry need to find new business customers.

GP said the decision to close the mill is a strategic one. The company felt the mill would not be able to sustain itself long term even if the company made s significant investment in the facility.

“Georgia-Pacific thanks its employees at Foley for their hard work and commitment and will work with them to provide access to local support agencies and job placement resources,” the company wrote on its website.

The Foley Cellulose mill was constructed and opened in 1954 by Procter & Gamble, a consumer goods maker. It was then sold to a private business partnership that later evolved into Buckeye Technologies Inc., in 1993 before it was sold to GP in 2013.

The mill produced specialty fibers from slash pine trees that people use in everyday products. This includes tires, towels, filters, shampoo and diapers.

Generations of Perry families have worked at the mill. From direct employees to children in the community, everybody in this city will be affected.

“Initially there was shock, then there was anger,” said Cori Johnson, a manufacturing engineer who had worked at the mill for nine years. “People’s eyes started opening up and seeing the impact it’s going to have on other businesses throughout the community.”

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Johnson, 36, was notified about the mill closing on Sep. 17 during his work shift. He was told to start shutting down production on the main line that afternoon and begin cleaning up.

The engineer lives with his wife and four boys. He said he is looking for a new job locally. If nothing turns up, he said he will look for work an hour to an hour and a half away. The last thing he wants is to move out of Perry.

For now, as he continues to look for work, he will have severance pay to keep him going.

“There’s a lot of fear,” Johnson said. “The fear of what happens to Perry with this mill shutting down.”

Ben Tuten’s business lost about 50% of its work when the mill announced it was shutting down. He was not given a heads-up about the mill closing down until the announcement was made.

“Only thing I received was a text that said they are going to stop taking wood at 6 p.m.,” he said.

Since receiving the message, Tuten has been looking for other mills that can buy his wood. He has experimented with construction work in the past and is continuing to do so, but it was mainly done to service his logging crews.

Tuten has 60 employees working for him. He’s trying to keep his group together in the hopes that his company is able to find new business.

“We’re just trying to keep everybody whole right now in hopes that the mill gets bought and opened back up,” he said.

Angie Gibson also worked providing services to the mill. Gibson, 42, works with an engineering company that has an office in Perry. She also works as a board member for Perry’s recreational softball league.

As the engineering project manager of her office, she has had to find new businesses to work with.

“In the last few weeks, we’ve diversified, and we’ve found other places to work,” she said. “Right now, 100% of our work is outside of Perry.”

Her main goal is to find work in Perry. Not only will it save her employees from having to commute long distances, but it will also help out the local businesses. She is confident her company will be able to move on from this difficult time, but she isn’t so confident recreational sports will survive.

Volunteering is a major part of recreational sports. If families have to travel far for work or move out of Perry altogether, they won’t have time to volunteer.

Also, recreational sports in Perry depend on sponsorships from local businesses. Now that less money is going back into the community with the mill closed, donors may not be able to support these programs anymore.

“Without some of these larger donors it is going to be challenging as we move forward,” said Billy Joe Wigglesworth, a board member of the Taylor County Baseball Association.

Wigglesworth, 35, highlights how important these businesses are to Perry recreational sports programs. Small businesses can pay $300 to put their name on a team’s jersey or hang a banner at the park.

Their first year, the Taylor County Baseball Association received a $3,000 donation from West Fraser, a wood products company. Coincidentally, the company went out of business less than a year later.

This year, Georgia-Pacific pledged to donate $2,500.

“It would have been our biggest sponsor this year,” he said. “There were some issues with the paperwork, and we were trying to work out some of the details they were needing from us. And then they closed the mill.”

After contacting the Georgia-Pacific Foley Cellulose mill via email, representative Scott Mixon stated, “GP intended to honor all 2023 charitable donation commitments, including the Taylor County Baseball Association.”

According to Mixon, various factors influenced the decision to close the mill. GP invested $175 million into its Dixie Facility in Darlington, South Carolina, according to an article GP published on its website on Oct. 12. This investment was done for long-term success, instead of saving over 500 jobs in the short term.

“Ultimately, GP does not believe the Foley mill can competitively serve customers in the long term despite the significant investments and commitment by GP Cellulose since the company acquired the site,” Mixon wrote. “This decision was made prior to the impact of Hurricane Idalia.”

Georgia-Pacific attempted to sell the mill. There has not been a suitable offer yet, but the company said it is keeping the mill in sellable condition in case someone has an interest in the future.

“That’s probably the best-case scenario,” Johnson said. Not only will his business get back on track, but the mill’s workers will be able to get their jobs back. The city’s economy could also recover.

“Life throws us curve balls, and we have to be able to adjust and adapt,” Gibson said. “We will figure out how to make this work.”

Joseph is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.