City leaders, citizens ‘dumbfounded’ by Wickliffe paper plant closure

Ballard County’s largest employer is stopping production for now, resulting in hundreds of layoffs. The company, Verso, announced it’s indefinitely idling the paper mill in Wickliffe. More than 100 salary employees will keep their jobs, but 310 hourly employees who work in manufacturing will lose theirs.

Employees learned about the partial closure today at work, but that was after the announcement was made public. The letter from Verso says by law they cannot share the information with employees before letting the public know. City leaders and those living in the city say they are dumbfounded. Many still refer to the plant as WestVaco, which owned it for many years. The mill not only holds significant economic weight in the area, but also emotional weight.

The paper mill was not just a place to work. For many, it was family. Debbie Lawrence, who owns Peedee’s Food Mart in Wickliffe, grew up around the mill. She says her father was one of those who helped in the start up for the mill. She says with the closure, she not only worries for the future of her family, but for the future of the region.

"A whole piece of western Kentucky is there," Lawrence says.

Wickliffe Mayor George Lane worked at the mill when it opened and knows who it will hurt most.

"It’s not just the people. It’s really where the hammer drops is the man working on the mill," Lane says.

Lane says he worked doing everything he could to improve his town, but the mill’s closure was a surprise he never planned for. Lane says it blindsided him.

The mayor says the paper mill is specialized because it can process multiple types of paper, and that’s the hope people are holding onto. That someone else will step in.

Verso spoke with their employees today. Those 310 employees’ last day will be Nov. 1. Lane says they just started thinking about ways to recover.

The mill pays about $500,000 in payroll tax to the county and pays tens of thousands of dollars to the city for water and to rent warehouses. The paper mill was the No.1 employer in the county.

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