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Without its paper mill, Putney reenvisions its future

An aerial photo of a large building with steam rising from it. There are leafless trees an small roads as well as houses nearby.
Vermont GIS
Courtesy of The Commons
Paper goods have been manufactured for generations in the heart of downtown Putney, seen in this state geographic aerial shot.

In the week since the Putney Paper Mill abruptly shut down, its former employees, local business owners and town leaders have been trying to reimagine the town's future without its largest employer. A total of 127 employees lost their jobs, according to the Vermont Department of Labor.

"The mill itself was a fact of life," said Mike Cosco, the owner of the Putney General Store. "There was no chance that it was just going to disappear — until last week."

Cosco's store sits right across the street from the mill, and workers would often stop by for breakfast or lunch. In return, Cosco and his employees would walk over to the mill with the cardboard boxes that the store's items got shipped in, so the boxes could be recycled and processed.

"The mill itself was a fact of life. There was no chance that it was just going to disappear — until last week."
Mike Cosco, Putney General Store owner

Cosco is part of a cohort of Putney residents who feel optimistic about the town's post-mill future. He is helping to lead a task force focused on revitalizing downtown Putney, organized by the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

"It opens up some opportunities for some new futures," Cosco said of the land the mill currently sits on. "It's very early in the process, but it could really help redefine Putney."

The mill's owner, New Jersey-based Soundview Vermont Holdings, LLC, owns the land and will continue to pay property taxes on it for the foreseeable future, said Putney Town Manager Karen Astley. She hopes Soundview will eventually lease the property or find a buyer, but for now, she said she remains focused on the laid-off workers.

"I understand why Soundview is doing what they're doing," she said. "But this is going to put stress on many different families."

(Soundview did not return a request for comment from Vermont Public.)

A photo of a brown building with a green and white sign reading "Putney" with a recycling logo on it. A street sign reading "Mill st." is visible in the foreground.
Randolph T. Holhut
Courtesy of The Commons
The Putney Paper Mill in 2012, when Soundview purchased the historic business.

Redeveloping the land could take years, depending on the level of environmental degradation at the site, Astley said: "The town cannot afford to clean that site up. And I wouldn't put that on the taxpayers either."

The mill's environmental toll has led some town residents to cheer on its closure. Courtney, a Putney resident who wrote in to Vermont Edition, said working at the mill's converting plant was their first job.

"Their health and safety history, as well as environmental impact, are both awful, and the town will be better without them, even if it will be a big blow to the town for now," Courtney wrote.

The plant was the repeated source of pollution, according to reporting by The Commons: "The plant underwent serious issues through the years, especially during the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, including the pollution of the Sacketts Brook, chemical spills, an unsavory order in the 1980s which permeated the center of town, along with a significant oil spill."

The Commons' editor-in-chief, Jeff Potter, who co-wrote the article on the mill, told Vermont Edition that his own staff has been affected by its closure. His office manager's husband was one of the 127 laid-off employees.

"He got a phone call early in the morning that said, 'Don't come to work today. We're closing the plant,'" Potter said.

Despite the sudden layoff, some former mill workers say they're being treated fairly by their former employer. One former employee named Robert wrote in an email: "I have sad feelings about the closure, but I'm not upset at all. I feel it was a good company and was more than fair with the terms of the layoffs."

"There's generations of Putney people that've worked there, and they've been able to make a living doing that. ... We're all at the ready to help in any way possible, and hopefully the plant transforms into, well, whatever's next. We want to make sure it's a positive thing for the town."
State Rep. Michael Mrowicki, a Democrat from Putney

Vermont's Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says his office is working with Soundview to make sure they're following state and federal employment laws and providing severance.

"The employer told individuals on their last day of work that this would be their last day of work, but the employer is paying the employees for an additional 60 days worth of pay and benefits," Harrington explained. "They did essentially provide that prior notice, it's just that they're not having them report to the work site."

Despite the due diligence, local leaders remain distressed by the news.

"It's devastating to see an era come to an end," said Astley, the town manager. "I used to see the steam coming from the mill, and now it’s like a ghost town over there. It’s eerily quiet."

State Rep. Michael Mrowicki, a Democrat from Putney, said he's still a bit in shock.

"There's generations of Putney people that've worked there, and they've been able to make a living doing that. That's a big deal," he said. "We're all at the ready to help in any way possible, and hopefully the plant transforms into, well, whatever's next. We want to make sure it's a positive thing for the town."

Harrington, the Labor Commissioner, said the state will directly connect laid-off workers with employers looking to hire, including by holding hold job fairs at the mill and also offsite.

Broadcast at noon Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.