The jobs lost through layoffs or closures are the most striking part of the now-regular announcements out of Maine’s pulp and paper industry. But that’s just the start.

Every time a mill slows or shuts down, and dozens or hundreds of people lose their livelihood, it releases a set of consequences that are killing once-vibrant communities.

And despite years to prepare, Maine does not yet have an articulable, long-term plan for helping towns recover. As a result, the clock is ticking for many mill towns, and for a certain way of life outside of the state’s more urban areas.

FOOTBALL AND PAPER

That’s what’s happening in Rumford, home to both a paper mill and a high school football team that have seen better days.

As described in the Portland Press Herald last week, their struggles are related.

The mill once had more than 1,300 workers, but now has about 750.

Mountain Valley High School once had a football team that was the pride of the community, and a perennial contender for state championships in Class B.

Now, after a loss in enrollment of 33 percent in 10 years, the team has a losing record in Class C, and the games only get a fraction of the fans.

A bad football team is not the end of the world. But it is a sign of the larger issues that are draining parts of Maine of its soul, and taking apart the things that connect people in these small towns.

FADING TOWNS

When there is a mill closing or a massive layoff, not only do residents lose their jobs, but local businesses lose customers, and towns lose tax base.

Eventually, residents leave, either for new opportunities or because property taxes are too high, and the schools lose students, too.

That means a loss in state aid in addition to more of the tax base, and the cycle continues.

People leave, businesses close, and soon all that is left is a dollar store.

That’s not an indictment of mill towns, nor is it an obituary for the paper industry. But it is a recognition of reality, and a call to do something to preserve these communities.

BAD NEWS

Pulp and paper mills that once employed more than 18,000 Mainers now provide jobs to about 5,500.

Verso Paper, which sold the Rumford mill as part of a $1.4 billion merger and is now in deep financial trouble, announced in August it is shedding 300 jobs at its mill in Jay.

In just the last two weeks, Lincoln Pulp and Paper, with 170 employees, announced it is going into bankruptcy, while a pulp mill in Old Town with almost 200 employees said it is shutting down.

With each closing, Gov. Paul LePage presses for lower electricity costs.

LePage is right that Maine needs additional natural gas capacity to erase the bottlenecks that result in price spikes.

But that is a regional project that requires help from the rest of New England, leaving Maine dependent on the action of other state governments.

And even if electricity prices were lower, that’s no guarantee of success for the paper industry, which is facing other challenges.

FALLING DEMAND

Demand for paper has fallen almost 20 percent since 1999, and for some products made in Maine the drop has been closer to 50 percent. Another decade or two of decline is expected.

The industry also faces disadvantages in foreign trade and a global marketplace where U.S. companies can be undercut in almost every cost, not just power.

Some mills have been able to adjust. Sappi, in Westbrook, now makes “release paper,” products that add texture to shoes, car interiors and clothing.

Sappi has found a profitable niche, but it fills orders with only a fraction of the workers of a generation or two ago.

Long term, that’s the best-case scenario. Fortunately for Westbrook, its size and proximity to Portland mean it didn’t have to live or die along with the size of the Sappi workforce.

WHAT’S NEXT

Rural towns don’t have that luxury. Some areas have had new employers come in, but not with the same demand for workers that mills used to have, and other employment opportunities are not usually nearby, as they are in more populated areas.

That leaves a vexing question; What’s next?

Tourism is an opportunity in some areas. Call centers have been successful. Agriculture has immense potential. Health care and skilled manufacturing positions that take advantage of Maine’s strong workforce are promising.

But right now, the approach is piecemeal. What’s needed is a more aggressive, statewide plan for reinventing mill towns and all of rural Maine. If not, these communities will continue to fade.