Elizabethton loses another industry After 50 years of operation, Inland closing its doors

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
k helms@starhq.com

   Shortly before the end of the 3 p.m. shift Friday at Inland Paperboard & Packaging Inc., workers were called together and told the plant would be closing its door within the next 60 days.
   This would have been Inland's 50th year of operation in Elizabethton. Closure of the plant at 1500 W. Elk Ave., will put approximately 130 people out of work.
   A press release issued Friday from Inland's Indianapolis headquarters announced the closure of packaging plants in Elizabethton and Hattiesburg, Miss. According to the press release, Inland will continue to operate its Elizabethton sheet plant at 152 Iodent Way.
   "Closing these plants will reduce costs and improve the efficiency of our box plant system, while preserving Inland's commitment to our customer base," Dale Stahl, president and chief executive officer, said in the press release.
   Approximately 235 positions will be eliminated at the two plants as a result of the closure, according to Inland headquarters. "We deeply regret the impact on affected employees. The company will offer access to multiple resources to assist in the transition," Stahl said.
   Doyle Simons, at Temple-Inland in Austin, Texas, said the closures are a matter of economics. "As you know, economic conditions are very tough right now. We have 82 box plants and this announcement is the closure of two," he said.
   Inland workers and local plant officials apparently were shocked at the news. A 14-year employee who wished to remain anonymous, said, "They told us at quitting time that they were going to shut the doors on it, and that was the end of it. They said they'd tell us more about it next week, probably, and sent us home."
   The plant official who made the announcement "said something about the economics, but after he throwed the big bombshell on me, I didn't hear much more. He just said it was due to hard times," the worker said. "That's the breaks of the game, I guess. Everything in Elizabethton is going."
   Inland announced Nov. 21, 2002, that its corporate headquarters will move from Indianapolis to Austin in 2003 as part of a broad companywide consolidation and streamlining. The company owns seven paper mills, 50 percent of a joint-venture gypsum board facing paper mill, and converting facilities in the United States, Puerto Rico, Mexico and South America.
   Carter County Executive Dale Fair was shocked at Inland's closure.
   "Our existing industrial committee just met with them. They were remodeling their offices and asked us to look into an interchange with Sycamore Shoals Hospital." Plant officials met with Sycamore Shoals staff last week to work out details on a new traffic light which would allow Inland's trucks easier access to their facility, he said.
   "This is definitely a shock to the local (plant officials). They would not be remodeling all of their office spaces and asking about a stop light down there at Williams Avenue if they knew that the shareholders were going to make this decision."
   Fair said he had spoken with a local plant official and was told that the decision to close "was strictly economics." It was not something they thought was going to happen.
   "They were making a turnaround, but they were not turning around quick enough for the shareholders. They were not making money, but they were turning around. It was going to be another year or two before they came back in the black at this particular facility. They thought they were on the right track, and they were led to think they were on the right track," Fair said. "But a board room somewhere at their headquarters made a decision to close it down."
   Inland's exodus comes on the heels of the recent announcement that Moody Aviation would close it's doors in 2005, and follows the departure of Cendant, Alcoa Aluminum, and Frank Schaffer Publications.
   "This is not at all good news," Fair said. Inland's closure will further erode the county's and city's already strapped tax base. "This is a major deal. They're a big taxpayer and they use quite a bit of power," he said.
   Phil Isaacs of Elizabethton Electric System, who is a member of the industry council which toured Inland last month, said Saturday, "It's a surprise to me. They were in full operation the day we went down there to take a tour. It was a top-notch looking place."
   Inland's closure means Elizabethton Electric will take another hit in sale of electricity. The utility has worked with Inland officials the last couple of years through a Tennessee Valley Authority program known as Comprehensive Services to help them with maintenance expense and "to see ways to help them save energy," Isaacs said. "They took advantage of that program and seemed well pleased with it.
   "They're a pretty good industrial customer. I don't know the exact revenue that they generate right off the top of my head. They're nowhere near what Alcoa was, but they're a good, steady customer," he said.
   Despite the closure, Fair said, "We will have to go on. We have a workforce development to work with those folks to help them find jobs. That building is a good manufacturing building. It's on the rails and it has a lot of the modern-type things that you need for EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)."
   Fair said he had just returned from a meeting with other city and county executives, and that Carter County is not unique in its loss of industry. "Everybody's kind of taken a hit."
   Some of those cities are larger than Elizabethton, he said, "so their hits don't affect them as much as our hits. But we're not down and out. We're going to keep on fighting. We'll help these people get jobs and we'll get to work on trying to find someone to come into that building.
   "We'll just have to take a lemon and try to make lemonade out of it," he said.
   Elizabethton City Manager Charles Stahl could not be reached for comment.