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Once-Shuttered NH Paper Mill Regains Workers

Nearly a year after re-opening, Gorham Paper and Tissue is hiring and building new equipment after putting 240 out of work in 2010.

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) β€” A paper mill that fell silent in New Hampshire's North Country a couple years ago is humming once again, experiencing a rebirth reflected in a renovation, the rehiring of formerly jobless employees, and a search for new workers.

Nearly a year after re-opening, Gorham Paper and Tissue has many of its workers back again β€” and is even advertising for some production jobs as a group of workers prepares for training on a new machine. The deadline for applications is June 20. Some people who were eligible to return to the mill have found other jobs or opted to retire.

"Hopefully, long term, we'll have roughly 250 people at the mill," the highest number yet, said Willis Blevins, plant manager.

Gorham, the North Country's last paper mill, appeared headed for extinction after its former owner declared bankruptcy in 2009. It shut down in the fall of 2010 after a buyer couldn't be found, putting about 240 people out of work.

After being shut down for eight months, the mill was acquired by Patriarch Partners, a New York investment firm led by Lynn Tilton that specializes in acquiring distressed manufacturing companies and getting them back on their feet. The firm's managing director for media said Tilton wasn't immediately available to comment Thursday.

The mill is restructuring, with plans to have a new tissue machine running in September. In addition to the products it's traditionally produced, such as paper towels and "commodity grades" β€” large rolls intended to be cut into sheets β€” there's a focus on more specialized papers, such as grease-resistant bags and wrappers for chicken, french fries and sandwiches.

"We had to reorganize and come up with new grades that would be profitable for the type of business we're in," Blevins said. He added that the mill now has a product development team to analyze the market.

Blevins said the mill is slowly getting back customers it had lost during a number of stops and starts in recent years.

"We're ecstatic," said Roland "Rollie" Leclerc, 59, who was initially hired by the mill 34 years ago and was rehired in September. He supervises one of the machines. "I'm happy to be back at work. It's great to have a paycheck every week. When you're 50 years old and you lose your job, and you know you only have 'X' amount of weeks of unemployment coming to you, you do a lot of thinking," he said.

Leclerc added that business is on the rebound, and that the employees working as hard as they can to see that Tilton gets a return on her investment.

"They tell us that we're running in the black, and that's a good thing," he said.

One improvement that has cut fuel costs is connecting the mill to a natural gas pipeline that runs across the Androscoggin River. The mill also is tapping methane from a landfill in nearby Berlin. The changeover to using the mixed fuels happened in October; the mill had been using oil previously.

"It's doing what we planned," Blevins said. "It's meeting the expectations that we had set for it."

The mill itself has been spruced up.

"You look at it then and you look at it today β€” you would not think it's the same mill," Blevins said. "We remodeled the offices, moved people around, put new carpet in, new flooring, painted it up. It's really looking good. And when customers come in, they remember the old mill and they're very impressed β€” that also helps us getting orders."

The mill, which dates back to 1852, started as a sawmill and transitioned to a paper mill. At one point, New Hampshire's North Country had about a half-dozen paper mills, but all except Gorham's have gone as the industry fought growing competition from overseas plants and dealt with rising costs.

The plant's continuing operation is a bright spot for the region, which has lost a number of businesses in recent years. Even today, a major employer in the area, the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, is closed for renovations. However, the new federal prison in Berlin is opening later this year.

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