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What happened to Maine’s pulp and paper industry?

The Great Northern Paper mill once employed thousands and paid more than 70 percent of the town’s taxes. (WGME)

Millinocket (WGME) – It’s quiet in Millinocket, Maine.

“Closed” and “Out of Business” signs litter Penobscot Street as parking spots remain abundant. The noise from the mill has been missing for almost a decade.

“When the noise went away, the jobs went away the money went away,” said Mike Madore, a former mill worker and Millinocket town councilor.

Madore says he remembers Millinocket in its glory days, when the Great Northern Paper mill employed thousands and paid more than 70 percent of the town’s taxes. He says the mill was a bold and loud force in the center of town.

“You could hear it 24 hours a day and people learned to sleep through it,” Madore remembers. “They learned to function through it they knew what it sounded like when they were blowing a boiler or something happened in the mill.”

Great Northern Paper mill was once one of the largest paper producers in the world. It provided high paying jobs and a sense of identity for the region. Things began to change in the 70s and 80s when mergers, layoffs, sales and shutdowns dominated headlines. The mill closed for good in 2008.

“It’s like going through a divorce,” Madore said. “Your world is torn apart. Part of you is gone.”

Millinocket was one of the first, but most certainly not the last. Bucksport, Old Town, Lincoln and Madison soon followed. One by one Maine’s paper mills closed. Leaving towns wondering why.

“The short answer is its survival of the fittest in a global economy,” said Patrick Strauch, the executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council.

Strauch says mills overseas in places like China, Finland and Brazil made for stiff competition. Another factor was the digital revolution. Demand for the paper Maine mills were producing plummeted.

“We’ve all made the conversion to the electronic media,” Strauch said. “Those were the grades of paper where we were vulnerable in.”

Governor Paul LePage has long blamed high energy costs. Strauch agrees that is a piece of the puzzle. Strauch says the goal now is supporting the six pulp and paper mills still standing in Maine. While towns like Millinocket are learning to live with the silence, knowing their paper making days are over.

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