Mill Worker Diaspora - TribPapers

Mill Worker Diaspora

Canton's and the surrounding area's dislocated mill workers have options if they don't mind being retrained. Staff photo.

Canton – By Michael Hughes
When Balsam Range released “Papertown” in 2012, the renowned bluegrass band from Canton, N.C., paid tribute to their hometown’s pulp and paper mill, which had several names over the course of a century. For generations, the mill played a significant role in shaping the working-class town, but now, it no longer exists to provide employment for the skilled blue-collar workforce.

In 1906, the eastern part of Haywood County relied heavily on the Champion Fibre Company, which utilized the abundant timber in the nearby Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains to produce paper-making pulp near the Pigeon River that flowed through the town. The mill went through various names, including Champion International, Blue Ridge Paper Products, Evergreen Packaging, and finally, Pactiv Evergreen. At its peak, it was the largest mill of its kind in the nation. However, last spring, after supporting the town for nearly 115 years, it ceased operations, leaving 1,100 workers displaced and in search of new employment.

If these workers choose to stay in the area, it would greatly benefit the local economy. The reasons for the mill’s closure are diverse, but in general, the shift towards digital media has dramatically reduced the demand for print paper. Additionally, the increased emphasis on recycling has resulted in a decreased need for new paper products, with recycling occurring five times more frequently than in 1960.

The final shift at Pactiv Evergreen took place in June of the previous year. The Town of Canton organized job fairs, hosted by local churches, in an attempt to connect the displaced workers with an estimated 1,200 manufacturing positions in the region. However, only a few openings were filled in the early weeks. The closure of the mill impacted not only Canton but also the surrounding towns and communities. Opportunities for well-paying positions in other industries and services are scarce in Canton, leading many displaced workers to explore opportunities beyond the borders of Haywood County.

In nearby west Buncombe County, companies like Haakon Industries in Candler, Pratt & Whitney, and Systems Logistics have recently opened, providing employment opportunities in their respective fields. In Canton, former Pactiv Evergreen workers received support in the form of paid tuition fees to enroll at Haywood Community College. Additionally, numerous applicants have benefited from a $7.5 million National Dislocated Worker Grant for Western North Carolina. Managed by the Southwestern Commission Council of Governments in Sylva, N.C., and Asheville’s Land of Sky Regional Council, the federal grant supports workers who have lost their jobs due to downsizing or closure. It covers expenses related to on-the-job training, continuing education, certification programs, and provides free career counseling. The WNC portion of the grant also provides incentives for employers offering specified training.

Within four months of the program’s initiation, the National Dislocated Worker Grant had already assisted 53 individuals, most of whom were formerly employed by Pactiv Evergreen. Since then, the number has nearly doubled. Tracking the current employment status of former mill workers remains challenging, but the Southwestern Commission’s Workforce Development Director, David Garrett, reports that they have provided assistance to over 100 individuals, with 75 placements or works in progress.

The Southwestern Commission continues to collaborate with local businesses to enhance training providers, implement targeted advertisements, and reach out to workers in need of assistance. In response to the closure, Dogwood Health Trust awarded an additional $1 million grant to support the commission’s efforts in understanding the economic impact on the region.

Other organizations, including local NCWorks career centers like branches in Waynesville and Asheville, work alongside the Southwestern Commission. Lisa Morris, manager of the Haywood County NCWorks Career Center, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to help former Pactiv Evergreen employees, emphasizing the center’s role in informing job seekers about potential job opportunities, career pathways, training options, and scholarships such as those funded by the National Dislocated Worker Grant.

The grant program also benefits employers looking to hire dislocated workers by subsidizing a portion of a new hire’s wages or covering part of a new employee’s training expenses.

The funding for these initiatives is set to expire by the end of May 2025. For more information, visit and