“There is a huge, huge opportunity” as families in the burgeoning middle classes of China, India and other Asian countries are seeking more personal hygiene and baby care products, said Rildo Martini, IP’s vice president and general manager for pulp.
Copy paper demand in Asia has increased, but North American mills can’t compete with Asian mills in that market, because the paper can be produced more cheaply there.
But the mill on the inky Blackwater River is able to take advantage of Asia’s growing desire for fluff because it can be made only from the long, coarse fibers of loblolly pine, a fast-growing tree that thrives in the U.S. South. Its fibers are ground, boiled, bleached and pressed into puffy white material that can absorb what a baby can excrete.
IP, with headquarters in Memphis, also makes fluff at part of its mills in Pensacola, Fla., Riegelwood, N.C., and Georgetown, S.C.
During the recession, copy paper demand in North America “stopped overnight” and IP had to shutter the Franklin mill, said John Faraci, IP’s chief executive. “We had no choice,” he said. “We didn’t have any orders.”
The Franklin mill’s large operations, southern location, and proximity to a major port made it a logical candidate to restart for fluff pulp production. “We’re willing to create jobs where there is demand,” Mr. Faraci said.
The revival came none too soon for the city, whose economy had been dominated by the mill since the 1880s. Today “closed” signs in storefront windows are common. The city has had to freeze hiring and dip into reserves due to an about $1 million loss this year in tax revenue from the mill. The percentage of City of Franklin residents living below the poverty line was 22% from 2006 to 2010, more than double the state rate. Unemployment sits at 10%. When IP sought to hire 220 workers, 3,000 people applied.
Darnell Lee, 52 years old, was one of the lucky ones. He and his wife were laid off from the mill in 2009. His wife is unemployed but at least now they have one salary, he said.
“That was the best phone call I could have ever got,” said Mr. Lee, who works in the mill’s shipping department.
The mill’s 15-story power-system tower—by far the tallest building for miles—is again illuminated at night. Trucks bearing 22-ton bundles of loblolly logs rumble through the city. Giant machines are whirring and grinding as preliminary operations have begun.And that peculiar mill smell, which one resident described as “like rotten eggs times three,” wafts through area streets. Some hate it, but many residents don’t mind.
Beulah Thorpe, 69, who lives right next to the mill, said she hushes people who complain about the plant’s odor. “That is money you smell,” she said. “It is a blessing to see people working there again.”