A huge EV factory is coming to west Tennessee. Here’s how locals are ensuring they benefit.

“Blue Oval City” sounds like some kind of fantastic, utopian megalopolis of the  future. In reality, it’s a massive automotive manufacturing complex that will provide several links in the EV supply chain. The joint venture, between Ford and Korean company SK Innovation, promises 6,000 good-paying jobs for residents of the small, rural communities around Stanton, Tennessee. Many expect it to benefit surrounding towns like Covington, Brownsville, and Jackson as well, while reaching south into Mississippi and north into Kentucky, too.

But the multibillion-dollar project raises complicated feelings for many in the working-class, largely Black communities that dot the farm country and marshy bottoms of west Tennessee. They pride themselves on a slower way of life, and feel lucky to have good drinking water from a reliable aquifer. Development on such a large scale will, they fear, change the community, suck up water and electricity, and prompt an influx of newcomers and development.

They are only the latest to face uncertainties with energy transition projects, which, from solar fields to wind farms, have prompted reservations about their size, industrial activity, and environmental impacts. But rather than accept their fate, the constellation of towns orbiting Stanton are sitting down with Ford and SK to negotiate a binding agreement that will ensure they benefit from Blue Oval City as much as the companies do.

During a series of community meetings held over the past few months, the coalition has drafted a list of stipulations, called a community benefits agreement, that it wants Ford/Blue Oval SK to abide by. It is asking for community resources like youth facilities, support for road maintenance, and apprenticeship pathways run by local union chapters. It also seeks a binding assurance that the joint venture will dispose of its waste properly. And although Ford has announced many community programs, local residents want the automaker to give them some say in such things.

“They didn’t really reach out,” Michael Adriaanse, who serves on the committee drafting the agreement, said of Ford’s efforts. “I know a lot of people who feel like it happened overnight.”

So how does such a process begin? Generally with meetings that bring stakeholders together to draw up a list of demands in a broad public conversation the company cannot ignore.

“The argument a community can make is, ‘If you want our resources, you have to contribute back to the health and welfare of the community you’re gonna be a part of now,’” said Kathleen Mulltigan, who leads the National Labor Leadership Initiative at Cornell University. “What we’re really trying to do is bring real democracy into the economic realm, because a lot of the work of shaping the economy happens without workers having any voice in it.”

Ultimately, community benefits agreements, or CBAs, are a contract between a corporation and coalition of local organizations that gives the community, through binding arbitration, leverage to ensure the commitments are kept.

Historically, CBAs have been used by those impacted by the entertainment and sports industries, which tend to get big municipal tax breaks and public funding. Some of the first were negotiated in Los Angeles in the early 2000s to address, separately, a sports arena and an entertainment district. After exhaustive negotiations, residents achieved many of their goals, including higher wages, guaranteed affordable housing, and revolving loans for local business. CBAs have since spread nationwide, with folks in Nashville negotiating a high wage floor, onsite childcare, and other provisions at Geodis Park, a $275 million stadium being built for the Nashville SC soccer team.

Now, CBAs are increasingly being used to address clean energy developments. According to the Sabine Climate Change Law Center at Columbia University, more than a dozen have been signed since 2015, many of them in the last three years. The contracts resulted in projects agreeing to give preference to local hires, and in companies sharing revenue with the county in which they operate. An offshore wind facility in Maine even underwrote rural broadband access.

Vonda McDaniel, the president of the Central Labor Council of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, is helping to formulate Blue Oval agreement and plan town halls. The process has been lively. “We haven’t had a whole lot of wilting flowers that have showed up at our meetings, to be honest,” she said.

One reason for that is that locals already see changes. “The community is feeling a bit squeezed; there’s heavy equipment up and down the road every day,” said McDaniel.

Farmland counties in the region known as Middle Tennessee endured rapid urbanization when automakers arrived in Spring Hill, south of Nashville. As investment increased and people began moving in, housing costs skyrocketed. They’re beginning to creep up around Stanton, too. McDaniel says a CBA could forestall that.

“Community benefits agreements are based on the power and leverage that communities build within themselves,” she said. “They’re not just gonna give you a list of things you say you want.” In her mind, these agreements help ensure a measure of democracy in a part of the country where voter disenfranchisement, especially in rural, Black communities, is high and private interests have the ear of state government.

The Blue Oval project received a $9.2 billion loan from the Department of Energy. As clean energy funding and incentives have proliferated under the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, much investment has gone to the Southeast and America’s vaunted EV “Battery Belt.” The region’s famously climate-unfriendly governors have opened their doors wide, with Tennessee Governor Bill Lee seemingly keen on snatching the automaking mantle from the Great Lakes. With $900 million in public incentives approved by the Tennessee legislature, it’s the largest single manufacturing investment in the state’s history.

Amidst the green boom, many have speculated that a part of the South’s draw is its generally lax environmental and safety regulations. Tennessee is a  “right-to-work” state; such locales typically support lower average wages. Tennessee’s preemption ordinance also prevents municipalities from enacting worker standards beyond what state law requires.

This does not mean publicly supported clean energy projects in the South are doomed to a lower standard than those in other places. The president of the Nashville chapter of the United Auto Workers Union has promised that Blue Oval City will be a “union facility.” The Inflation Reduction Act and bipartisan infrastructure law require those seeking federal funding to submit a “community benefits plan” outlining how they will invest in domestic labor, local communities, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Although similar to CBAs, they’re not the same. Advocates of such arrangements say CBAs are needed to secure accountability and transparency, and to give communities direct input into projects that impact them.

Will Tucker works as the Southern Programs Manager with Jobs to Move America, a national labor advocacy nonprofit. It recently negotiated a CBA with New Flyer, an electric bus manufacturer in Anniston, Alabama, and Tucker feels confident this approach to the transition can work in the South.

“What sets a real community benefits agreement apart from a dressed up community outreach program by another name is the element of negotiations with the company,” he said. Though many companies will set aside funding for local sports leagues, schools, and the like, Tucker considers such moves more of a PR strategy than a way of giving the community power.

If community organizations can present a united front, that pressure usually pushes the company to negotiate, though in some cases, protests and demonstrations heighten the stakes. Michael Adriaanse hopes such pressure will send the Blue Oval City CBA over the finish line.

Ultimately, for a CBA to work, the company in question must sit down with the community. Adriaanse said the coalition invited Ford representatives to a town hall to discuss preliminary demands, but it didn’t work out. McDaniel speculated that the company’s ongoing negotiations with United Auto Workers, which recently concluded a strike, may have slowed some things down. There’s a long road ahead, but Adriaanse and McDaniel are hopeful that with a strong enough coalition, the company won’t be able to dodge any longer.

The coalition still plans to go to the table with Ford, with a complete draft of the agreement in hand, early in the new year. Even if the effort is not immediately successful, community members say, the relationships they’ve built with one another will only get stronger, leaving possibilities for further organizing open down the road.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A huge EV factory is coming to west Tennessee. Here’s how locals are ensuring they benefit. on Dec 18, 2023.

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Replace fossil fuels — with more fossil fuels? That’s one major utility’s plan.

Austin Wall was attending an environmental law conference at the University of Tennessee not long ago when, during a discussion of natural gas pipeline projects, a map appeared on the screen and gave him a surprise.

“I’m like, hold up, that Google Maps looks really familiar to me,” the 25-year-old law student said. “I could find my family’s farm on that map.”

Wall’s family lives in rural Dickson County, and its ranch lies within a 10-mile “blast zone” of a pipeline planned for north-central Tennessee. That got his attention. A pipeline exploded in that area in 1992, scorching more than five acres of forest, and a similar disaster could decimate the family’s livelihood raising cattle. But what really dismayed him is why the Tennessee Valley Authority wants to build the project: It plans to replace two coal-fired power plants with natural gas facilities.

The TVA is the nation’s largest public power provider, serving a wide swath of seven southern states, including most of Tennessee. Its fleet of 29 dams, 14 small “solar energy sites,” and 25 power plants generates the electricity that it sells to 153 regional utilities. The agency once boasted 14 coal-fired power plants, including one that was for much of the 1960s the world’s largest. Today just five remain, and the agency wants to replace two in Tennessee, one in Cumberland and the other in Kingston, with gas-powered plants. Doing so all but commits its customers to fossil fuels for the next 25 to 30 years, obliterating the utility’s chance of reaching any national or international, or even its own, climate goals.

Despite that, the TVA argues that building the capacity for solar and wind energy takes too much money and time to allocate all at once. Its officials insist that methane burns cleaner than coal, and they echo a common argument in claiming that it provides a tidy bridge between coal and truly renewable energy. Some, including the Environmental Protection Agency, oppose the plan for climate reasons, arguing that, in addition to carbon dioxide, the plant will emit methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas. Others worry about how the pipelines needed to serve the new operations will impact their communities.

Wall joined other opponents of the plan who gathered earlier this month in a cavernous middle school gym in Norris, Tennessee, for a TVA board meeting. Together, they told the agency exactly what they thought of the plan. Wall sees the plant slated for Cumberland as part of a history of exploitation throughout the rural South.

“It’s rich people coming in and stealing our stuff and then leaving,” he said. “And I think that when you look into it, it’s a cycle that TVA has the opportunity to stop or to break.”

The TVA bills itself as a proponent of sustainability, and the meeting was thick with branding proclaiming that. A video clip playing on a screen near the podium celebrated a utopian vision of the agency’s past and present: happy workers, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, and glittering solar fields. “We made clean energy long before anyone asked us to,” the narrator intoned over the sound of an acoustic guitar.

A black-and-white photo shows the main building and nine towering smokestacks of the Kingston Fossil Plant on the banks of the Clinch River near Kingston, Tennessee.
The Kingston Fossil Plant, shown here in 1963, was completed in 1955 and was for more than a decade after that the largest coal-burning power plant in the world.
Bettmann / Contributor / Getty

Yet just 3 percent of the TVA’s energy portfolio comes from wind and solar alone. If you count hydropower and nuclear as clean energy sources, as the TVA does, that number bumps up to about 50 percent. Gas supplies another 22 percent. “I want the word sustainability to be synonymous with TVA,” Lyash said during the meeting.

It’s hard to square that position with the agency’s plans for the Cumberland and Kingston power plants. Each is a juggernaut. Cumberland, the largest remaining coal plant in the TVA’s fleet, generates enough power for 1.1 million homes each year, according to the agency, and Kingston, about 700,000. These two plants burned coal for decades, exposing the surrounding low-income, rural communities to carbon, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants. In Kingston, mismanagement of the plant’s massive coal ash landfill resulted in a notorious billion-gallon spill in 2008. Each is reaching the end of its service lifespan, and, combined with federal pressure to reduce emissions, no longer make economic sense to repair and run. Though bulldozing the units remains an option, the TVA believes a conversion to methane may give these plants a new life and benefit the climate.

“Replacing retired coal units with natural gas will reduce carbon emissions from coal chains by nearly 6 percent and accelerate the retirement of that coal,” Lyash said of the plan.

Of course, replacing those plants with renewables would reduce carbon emissions even further. The TVA is taking a step in that direction by replacing a coal plant in Paradise, Kentucky, with an operation that will combine solar and natural gas.

The agency considered a solar buildout for the Cumberland coal plant, but ruled it out on the grounds that it would require too much time and money. It also weighed distributed solar development as an alternative for the Kingston plant, but drafts of the plan indicate gas remains the preferred alternative there, too. This comes after years of slashing solar incentives and disinvesting in energy efficiency programs.

The favoritism mirrors a regional trend as Tennessee doubles down on natural gas. State lawmakers are pushing a bill that reclassifies it as clean energy. This follows years of other fossil fuel-friendly legislation, like a bill that explicitly blocks some local governments in the state’s majority-Democratic urban areas from fully decarbonizing. As usual, the argument follows these lines: You can’t see the sun for twelve hours a day, but gas plants can run anytime you need them.

The Biden Administration disapproves of the TVA’s plan for Cumberland and Kingston, noting that the only way it would achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 would be to institute expensive carbon capture technology, which the TVA did not factor into its math, or bring the plants offline early, leaving them a stranded asset. However, the EPA  did not challenge the decision.

Some commenters thanked the TVA for keeping the lights on, but others challenged the gas buildout, saying the agency reached a crossroads, took a look each way, then picked the wrong direction. Some called on it to immediately change course and cancel its plans.

“If you don’t move now, this will not happen,” one commenter told the board. “We are taxpayers who contribute to every TVA salary.”

That isn’t actually true, although it’s easy to see why people might think it is. Tax dollars do not support the TVA, though they once did, at its outset under the New Deal. Today the agency is a corporation run by the United States government, with leadership recommended by the President of the United States, and confirmed by the Senate, to serve five-year terms. Its board meetings are open, and decisions subject to public comment. But lately, some believe its decision-making has been less than democratic, and that TVA no longer feels beholden to those it serves.

“It’s a corporation clothed with the power of government,” said Amanda Garcia, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center. The Center, with other regional organizations like Appalachian Voices and the Tennessee Sierra Club chapter, has thrown its energy into pushing TVA away from methane. Part of the difficulty, she said, is the TVA is not regulated by the state Public Service Commission – it’s essentially an unregulated monopoly. That exempts it from the sort of oversight experienced by, say, Dominion Energy, which saw the South Carolina Public Service Commission reject its long-term plan in 2020, citing a need for lower-carbon options in its energy mix. Furthermore, utilities under TVA jurisdiction have negotiated what are called “never-ending contracts,” or perpetual power supply agreements that are difficult to exit. That lack of accountability and flexibility appears to be keeping the TVA on the fossil fuel train, Garcia said.

“I think there’s a fair amount of, just, institutional inertia going into planning for the future,” she said. “And a desire to continue to be able to control the electric system in a way that is inconsistent with really where we need to be moving from a climate perspective.”

Seven people holding protest signs in front of the brick wall of a building during a demonstration against a proposal by the Tennessee Valley Authority to build two natural gas power plants.

Environmental groups and community members protest TVA’s gas buildout at a public meeting.
Katie Myers / Grist

Garcia and other climate activists believe Lyash, whom the board named CEO in 2019, holds outsized power over decision making. President Trump, who fired two of the board’s nine members over their pay and other issues, threatened to fire him for the same reasons. He relented, and the remaining board members voted in 2022 to hand Lyash the final call on a wide range of matters, including the last word on the gas plant buildout. After President Biden appointed four board members, the panel in May took back that authority, but ditching coal for gas in Cumberland and Kingston remains the official position. The TVA has refused to make board members available for comment, leaving that task to Lyash. TVA did not respond to an additional request for comment by the time of publication.

In an interview, Lyash told Grist that he wants the plants to eventually serve as backup energy sources, in the form of blackout-preventing “peaker plants,” that would provide power during high demand as the agency brings more renewables online. “If you wait for the perfect, you’ll be waiting a long time,” he said.

He also cited his oft-repeated mistrust in the reliability of wind and solar in defending the plan.

“If we could build 100 percent solar and operate a reliable, affordable system, we would have no reason not to. But we can’t. But that isn’t to say that doesn’t diminish the role of a solar bill on the portfolio,” he said, referring to the proportion of gas and solar in the energy mix. “The gas bill, you can’t take it in isolation. You have to think of it as part of the overall system.”

Tennessee’s larger cities, though, don’t think they have the time to wait on TVA’s creeping energy transition. Memphis Light, Gas and Power recently backed out of its “never-ending” 20-year contract with TVA, citing a desire to integrate more renewables and lower residents’ utility bills. Nashville Mayor John Cooper personally urged the TVA to scrap its Cumberland gas plant idea and start over.

“Even if TVA decides to retire the gas plants early and switch to renewables, they will pass the cost of the plant onto Nashville customers, consolidating the cost of a decades-long investment into customer electricity bills over just a few years,” Cooper wrote in a public comment addressed to the TVA. “Leaving Nashvillians on the hook for further pollution is unacceptable, whether the plants operate for years or are retired quickly.”

Climate activists and community leaders hope the conversions to gas are not a done deal. The Kingston plan was only just offered for public comment, and a lot can change before it is finalized in the spring of 2023. The Cumberland gas plan was wrapped up in January, but environmental advocates hope increased agitation over the planned pipeline could delay or even kill it, since that project requires an EPA-approved plan. A few bureaucratic steps remain before the future of the two power plants is set, and the public can still weigh in on it.

Austin Wall doesn’t want a gas plant, but also doesn’t want to see the TVA leave Cumberland. On the contrary. The plant provided 265 well-paying union jobs. But the 35 permanent positions expected from the gas buildout feels like a pittance in comparison, not to mention the public health hazards it will bring. Wall would rather see the agency support his community with renewed investment in energy efficiency and home upgrades, along with the construction of solar and wind infrastructure. That, he says, both help rural ratepayers and provide more opportunity for carpenters, electricians, and others in skilled trades.

A recent report by nonprofit organization Appalachian Voices suggested that as many as 739 direct, long-term jobs could be created in Cumberland and the surrounding area with investments in decarbonization, particularly in the energy efficiency sector.

“We’ve given up a lot of our land and a lot of our health and well being for this coal plant,” Wall said. “And we’d like to see a little bit of it in return.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Replace fossil fuels — with more fossil fuels? That’s one major utility’s plan. on May 19, 2023.

As one Southern community mourns a paper mill’s closure, another rejoices

This story is co-published with the Daily Yonder. Sign up for the Daily Yonder’s weekly newsletter here.

Beyond the forested banks of the Pigeon River, the Smoky Mountains rise from either side of a steep gorge that leads to the town of Hartford, Tennessee. The river runs through the gorge from North Carolina, parallel to Interstate 40, before widening into a series of shallow, shining, and swift ripples and runs. Lining the shores on both sides are about a dozen rafting companies, one right after the other. The guides weren’t very busy on this April day early in the rafting season, so they had taken to the rapids in bright blue boats to enjoy the afternoon. When Jamie Brown was younger, back in the 1980s and ’90s, she never would have dreamed of doing such a thing.

“The smell was horrendous,” she says of the river. “And it was black.”  

The calm waters of the Pigeon River flows through a lush, tree-lined gorge in Hartford, Tennessee.
The Pigeon River flows through Hartford, Tennessee, where it supports several thriving river-rafting businesses. Grist / Katie Myers

Brown is old enough to remember when Hartford was known as “Widowville.” An unusually high number of people have died of cancer here over the years. Once, her father drove her to the headwaters of the Pigeon, where it ran clean and clear, then followed it to the paper mill in Canton, North Carolina, just over the state line from Hartford. He showed her where, below the mill, the river began to turn dark and foul. “My experience was understanding the headwaters, what it could be, and how vile it was, [and] what had been done to our community,” she says. 

The paper mill has been a mainstay of Canton since 1908, a thriving part of what was once a burgeoning lumber and paper industry in western North Carolina. Around it sprang up the town. For now, the mill employs 1,100 people in well-paying union jobs, though it once employed more than 2,000. It was called Champion then, for the company that owned it. Champion pulled out in 1999 after a series of environmental lawsuits blamed it for the pollution and economic harm on Tennessee’s side of the river, and employees bought the mill to keep it running. Today, it’s owned by an international food-and-beverage packaging conglomerate called Pactiv Evergreen.

Large plumes of white smoke rise from the stacks to fill a blue sky above the paper mill in Canton, North Carolina.
White smoke billows from Evergreen Packaging, as seen from the highway exit to Canton. Nearby residents have complained of a sticky, white dust spraying from the plant. Grist / Katie Myers

On March 6, Pactiv Evergreen abruptly announced the paper mill will close in June due to rising inflation and corporate restructuring. The news has been emotional on both sides of the river, with some in Hartford celebrating as Canton’s families mourn. In the minds of many Hartford residents, Canton’s prosperity had come at their expense; now, the closure may bring a measure of environmental justice and economic growth to Hartford even as Canton faces an uncertain future. But the region, home to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is immensely popular with visitors, and a growing tourism industry has both communities wondering whether they will be able to ford the rising tide of development. Though new employers are desperately needed, people in both towns fear the rush for revenue and jobs will forever change their communities.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Brown says.

The mill has long been the lifeblood of Canton. People wear shirts that declare they are “Mill Town Proud.” The coffee shop is called Papertown Coffee, and patrons park next to a mural that reads “Papertown.” Some communities hide their factories at the edge of town, but here it proudly stands in the center of everything, visible from every vantage point. Downtown is vibrant and alive, and mill workers fill local businesses at breakfast, lunch, and during shift changes. At noon, they order sandwiches with iced tea and pie at Black Bear Cafe, an old-school lunch counter tucked away from the bustle of downtown Canton. They’re all regulars, known by name. Black-and-white pictures of the good old days line walls, and the hum of conversation fills the air. Many of its employees have family working at the mill. 

A street running between two buildings in downtown Canton, North Carolina leads toward the paper mill in the distance. Billows of white smoke rise from its stacks.
The Pactiv Evergreen paper mill is visible from every vantage point in town. It is the largest employer in the county.
Grist / Katie Myers
A small red yard sign that reads “have you prayed for the mill today?” stands in a grassy yard near a road in Canton, NC.
Pride for the paper mill runs deep in Canton, North Carolina. This sign was posted outside an auto parts store in town.
Grist / Katie Myers

The mill created quite a different feeling in Hartford, where many considered it an inescapable shadow over their lives. Some old-timers remember companies looking to set up shop in the area, only to pass it by, with the water quality as the suspected but unspoken reason. The water stank, and just as people came to call the town Widowville, the river — named for the passenger pigeons that once migrated through the area — acquired its own nicknames: the Dirty Bird and the Dead Pigeon.

Tensions between the two towns, which sit about 40 miles apart, go back decades. Brown joined an activist group called the Dead Pigeon River Council in the 1980s. For years, the organization protested Champion Paper and attended hearings to demand the mill clean up its operations and stop contaminating the river. The fight for the river led to a lawsuit as scientists uncovered the harmful effects of PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” found in paper mill effluent. Eventually, Champion agreed to make almost $300 million worth of upgrades, and the river’s color and smell improved. But even after modernization, the employee buyout, and the switch to Pactiv Evergreen, the mill has logged violations of state environmental laws and sought waste-discharge permissions that have concerned environmental advocates, and there’s no removing the dioxin that’s long since settled into the river bottom. 

It is against that backdrop that people in Hartford cheered Evergreen’s announcement. “I called our oldest member still living to tell him that they were closing the plant, and we cried together,” Brown says.  

Jamie Brown, an environmental justice organizer from Hartford, Tennessee, sits in a deck chair outside a cafe. She wears a black shirt over a red plaid turtleneck and black pants.
Jamie Brown, an environmental justice organizer from Hartford, Tennessee, remembers when the town was called “Widowville” for its high rate of cancer.
Grist / Katie Myers

Canton has faced its own consequences from the mill. In November, a mysterious white dust, like ash, fell from the stacks and settled over town. Below the mill, the Pigeon still runs darker than above it. And pungent smoke blankets the valley. But mill workers’ families say you can get used to anything if it’s how you make your living. 

“My uncle used to say it smelled like money,” says one longtime resident who didn’t want to be identified. Like many people in Canton, her life teems with mill workers. Many of the men in her family have spent most of their working lives there. That’s typical of families here; the mill is the largest employer in Haywood County. It seems everyone knows someone who will lose their job come June.

“It’s affected a lot of our family,” she says, holding back tears. 

Mill workers, too, are equally tight-lipped to avoid any misunderstandings from an already fractured community. “The morale is down,” says one worker in his 60s. He’s lived here all his life and, like other families, doesn’t plan on leaving. Despite the changes in its leadership, he still feels connected to the mill. 

A longtime millworker in Canton, North Carolina, stands on a green lawn alongside a staircase. He is wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt, and a ball cap.
“Morale is down” among employees of the paper mill, according to a longtime employee, left, who did not wish to be named. Despite its changes in leadership, he still feels a connection to the mill. Grist / Katie Myers

“I haven’t said anything bad about the company, have I?” he says, winking. “That’s right.”

The mill was hard work, but with overtime, a mill worker could make $82,000 per year, in a county with a per capita income of $31,200. Everyone belonged to United Steelworkers, Smoky Mountain Local 507, which provided a measure of security and fair treatment. The local has been dissolved, which is standard procedure in a case like this, but union reps from Pittsburgh are working to maximize severance and ensure Pactiv Evergreen honors its contract requirements to the very end.

Unlike so many other industrial towns, Canton had been insulated from the ravages of globalization. Its public works still gleam, its people remain comfortable. The mill paid for the baseball field, the park, the YMCA. It runs the town’s water and sewer plants. A less charitable interpretation would be to say it’s a company town. But many here, like local historian and archivist Caroline Ponton, see it as a generosity, an indicator of Champion’s investment in its workers. But Champion hasn’t run the mill in 20 years.

“As management is further away, it’s … a different chemistry,” Ponton says. And regardless, when Evergreen pulls out, there’s a real question of where the money to continue paying for those things will come from. 

A large blue mural in downtown Canton, North Carolina shows two bears and the word "Papertown" in large red letters.
A mural in downtown Canton celebrates the town’s identity – and connection to a paper mill that opened in 1908.
Grist / Katie Myers

Such questions come up in any rural community that depends upon one or two industries for their economic survival and watches them leave. Brandon Dennison, the CEO of the West Virginia nonprofit Coalfield Development and a 2019 Grist 50 honoree, calls them “mono-economies” and says they create economic fragility. “The more diversified the local economy, the less catastrophic a single plant or mine closure is,” he says.

Mayor Zeb Smathers has been turning those questions over in his mind constantly ever since he heard, by text message, that Evergreen executives had opted to close the mill. “It felt like a death in the family,” he says. Smathers, whose father was mayor from 1999 until 2011, hopes Canton can ride the coming wave of rapid economic transition, rather than find itself subsumed by it.

Much of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee are booming, in no small part due the natural beauty of the Smoky Mountains and its waterways. Smathers is proud of the mill’s modernization efforts over the years, even if he acknowledges that it’s been imperfect progress. “We have the best water in western Carolina,” he says, adding that he expects rafting to grow more popular around Canton after the mill closes. 

A large white sign that reads “learn to kayak here” on the side of a wood building alongside the Pigeon River in Hartford, Tennessee.
About a dozen kayak and river-rafting businesses line the Pigeon River in Hartford, Tennessee, a town celebrating the closure of the paper mill but wondering about its own future. Grist / Katie Myers

He has reason to be hopeful. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, long the nation’s most popular park, draws about 14 million visitors each year, and more than 200,000 people came to Cocke County in 2020 to ride the Pigeon River. But a recreational economy won’t feed everyone, particularly the old-timers who’ve been in the mill for decades. “You can’t make bubbas into baristas,” Smathers says. The town has been hosting regular job fairs, with a focus on manufacturing, health care, law enforcement, technical jobs, and other higher-paying professional work. Recently, the city government launched milltownstrong.com, a resource for workers as they make their next move.

Smathers often finds himself in meetings with real estate developers and other investors, many of whom he says are practically knocking down his door to get into Canton. They see an opportunity to invest in real estate, open businesses, and spark the town’s boom as a tourist destination. Smathers has asked them to slow down a little as he gathers his thoughts and leads his community through June. There is a sense among locals that they aren’t about to be left behind by this transition, but overrun by it. Smathers sees the economies of east Tennessee and North Carolina growing, but he also knows that the resulting increase in the cost of living has tightly squeezed the area’s working class.

“I think the die has been cast with how expensive it is to live in both respective places,” Smathers says. “It’s not slowing down. But that adds another layer of challenges to this. Because I want the people here to continue to live here and continue to contribute. But if you can’t, if it’s too expensive to live here, well, then that’s going to result in a net loss, not just [of] people, but [of] culture and place and history. It’s one of those things I do lose sleep over.”

Paper flyers and posters advertising job fairs and resources to help millworkers hang in the window of a cafe in Canton, North Carolina.
A window in downtown Canton is papered with advertisements for job fairs and resources to help mill workers who will lose their jobs by June. Grist / Katie Myers

Folks in Hartford say that, although they feel for the workers, the paper mill closure can only help bring revenue to this cash-strapped side of the Smokies. Cocke County’s per capita income is just under $24,000, and one in five residents lives in poverty. Hartford doesn’t even have a sewer system, as small as it is. Rafting is the county’s second-largest source of revenue, after property taxes, and the number of people coming to ride the river has exploded since the pandemic. These days, Hartford buzzes with rumors of expanding development, a possible new resort that nobody knows much about, increasingly large rafting companies, and construction all along the river road. 

Such things bring both trepidation and excitement. And many in Hartford believe Canton has a strong economic base to stand on, and that its high homeownership, pretty downtown, and company-paid parks and other amenities will ease it past this difficult moment into a brighter future.

Brown has long since passed the baton of activism to a younger generation, many of whom, under the banner of newer organizations, continue organizing for environmental and economic justice. Amelia Taylor, who joined the Dead Pigeon River Council as a kid, now works as a guide on the river and remains politically engaged in her community. She wants to see Cocke County prosper, but she doesn’t want to see her home become like Gatlinburg, the glitzy tourist town down the road in Sevier County, Tennessee, where workers live in motels to make ends meet. “Let’s not pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” Taylor says. “They need to create good-paying service jobs, not low-paying service jobs.” 

Memorabilia from the Dead Pigeon River Council in Hartford, Tennessee, is displayed on a table. A photo shows a banner reading, "Hey, Champion Paper Company - go Caroline free. Your dioxin is killing us."
Memorabilia from the campaigns the Dead Pigeon River Council has waged against the paper mill over the years, from the collection of council member Steve Hodges.
Grist / Katie Myers

Taylor is unapologetically elated by the mill’s closure, and plans to throw a party to celebrate it this summer. But she also feels for the workers, some of whom expressed sympathy for Hartford’s plight over the years and fought from inside to bring the mill up to environmental standards. Other workers reacted angrily to protests with threats and shouting, but their ire didn’t change the eventual outcome. In the end, she says, the workers were bound to be sacrificed in the same way Hartford was. ​​”It’s interesting that the mill created such a sense of pride in Canton, yet now the mill is abandoning them in the name of profits,” she says. “Evergreen never cared about the workers. They were practicing business till it no longer became profitable for them.”

Even as she hopes for the best, Taylor fears that the resort, and the tourism industry rapidly expanding in this corner of the Smoky Mountains, may be much like the paper mill — just another business looking to exploit the environment and those it employs, even as local leaders celebrate it for the jobs and revenue it brings. Such concerns are compounded by the feeling among many in this end of Tennessee that visitors are drawn not just by the natural beauty of the landscape, but by a curated rural mystique, a moonshine-drinking, truck-driving, deer-hunting caricature of mountain people like them. In that way, the people of Hartford and Canton face their uncertain future in tandem, once again brought together by circumstances, and by the river that connects them.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As one Southern community mourns a paper mill’s closure, another rejoices on Apr 27, 2023.

Tennessee Wants to Take Land from Black Residents So a Ford Plant Can Benefit

When retired nurse Rosa Whitmore-Miller left New York City after 40 years for the peace of her hometown of Stanton, Tennessee, she never expected she’d have to fight to keep the land her family worked hard to cultivate. “It wasn’t just handed to us, like some people inherit. We had to go out there and […]

The post Tennessee Wants to Take Land from Black Residents So a Ford Plant Can Benefit appeared first on Capital B.