LUKE, Maryland — It’s been 130 years since what was then known as West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company began in current-day Luke, Maryland. Now, the town is struggling to cope with the threat that the mill could close its doors for the final time in fewer than 60 days.
The news came a week ago when the Ohio-based Verso Corporation announced it will close the Luke mill, putting 675 area residents out of a job. The company anticipates the mill will close June 30.
Luke’s Mayor, Ed Clemons Jr., said there was zero warning to any of the employees, residents, or even local officials. He said his initial reaction was one of “complete shock.
“It came on the radio. The phone rang, it was my sister-in-law, and my wife says, ‘Ed, it just came on the news that the mill’s closing.’ I said, ‘What? No. It can’t be.’ I turned the radio on, and it was true,” Clemons said. “They sent a FedEx letter which arrived two days after, and they knew it would. I got an email from the office at 9:15. The news broke at 7:15. My initial reaction was, ‘What do we do now?’ And I don’t know the answer to that.”
In the week that’s followed, Clemens said it’s been a gloomy atmosphere in Luke and its surrounding communities.
“We know that darkness has fallen over the community ever since this announcement, and Lord we know that many are wondering where the path leads,” Clemons said in a prayer during a vigil held at Town Hall Wednesday. “But by your spirit, by grace, we know who holds tomorrow.”
Closure of the mill had been rumored for decades, as new ownership and several bankruptcies impacted the various different corporations.
Westvaco, who purchased the property in 1969, later became MeadWestvaco in 2002 before selling to NewPage in 2005. The NewPage Corporation filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2011.
Verso Corporation then acquired NewPage in January 2015. Just a year later, Verso, too, restructured following Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But despite those setbacks, Clemons said he didn’t think the day of a permanent closure would ever come.
“As they’ve laid people off in the past and got rid of machines, it was because technology got better,” he said. “They make more paper now in that mill today with two machines than they made when they had nine.”
Verso’s Luke mill produces 450,000 tons of paper, Clemons said.
“They make enough paper in one hour to drive from Luke all the way to Cumberland on fine-coated paper, and it would be wide enough to take up the whole 220 highway. That’s how big the paper rolls start,” he said.
Allegany County resident Becky McKenzie, however, said she wasn’t surprised.
“I don’t want to say it was all that shocking,” she said. “I think it was shocking that it was happening because it’s been rumored for a long time. It was very, devastating, I guess would be a word maybe to use but not really a big surprise because we knew it was eventually probably going to happen.”
McKenzie, who is president of WEPCO — the credit union created for the mill employees during the 1970s — felt it was important for her and her staff to attend the prayer vigil Wednesday night.
“They have been supporting us for all of this time, so we just want to show our support that we’re there for them as well,” she said.
Upon arriving and seeing hundreds gathered at town hall, McKenzie said she was elated.
“I prayed that there was going to be a large turnout because I know this community is so small and so faith driven,” she said. “I was ecstatic when the room just kept filling and filling. We had to add more and more chairs. It’s very heartwarming to know that everybody is coming together.”
Faith is what’s helping many residents, including Mayor Clemons himself, going through this difficult time.
“This has been a struggle for me,” he said. “If it wasn’t for strong faith, and those that are with me that have faith, I wouldn’t have made it through this past week.”
Keeping that faith has certainly brought the communities together, not only Luke and its sister TriTowns of Westernport, Maryland and Piedmont, West Virginia.
“This is a big hit all at once,” Clemons said. “It’s not just Luke, it’s Allegany (County, Maryland), Garrett (County, Maryland), Mineral, Tucker, Grant, Preston. Even towns in Pennsylvania are going to be affected by this.”
And residents of many of those counties gathered at Wednesday’s prayer vigil, uniting in prayer for a miracle of any different outcome.
“It showed me that the people here do have a spirit of unity and faith, and that’s what’s going to get us through this,” Clemons said. “God has a plan. I’m going to keep believing and keep praying, and my God will get me through this.”