MADISON — Two years ago, Patrick Daubenberger was on vacation in New York when he got a phone call from his ex-girlfriend’s father telling him Madison Paper Industries was closing and all employees, including Daubenberger, would be losing their jobs.

The feeling was surreal. Everyone in town knew there would come a day when the mill, already faced with declining demand for glossy magazine paper, pressure to compete with Canada and high energy costs, would shut down; but no one knew it would be so soon.

Daubenberger immediately thought he was going to have to sell his house and his car. He didn’t know what he would do, where he would work or whether he could stay in central Maine.

He came back to Madison and worked the last two months at the mill before it ended production on May 21, 2016. He applied for federal assistance to go back to school and unemployment.

In the fall of 2016, he started classes at the University of Maine at Augusta. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do and almost dropped out, but family and friends encouraged him to finish his degree.

“The only point where I finally felt like I’m in control and I know what I’m going to do wasn’t until the beginning of this year, when I switched majors,” Daubenberger said. “For a long time, the mill was what I was going to do. I didn’t know what else there was until I went to school. It kind of re-set things. It was a godsend in a bad situation.”

Today, Daubenberger is feeling optimistic about his future, with plans to graduate in December and find a job in human resources or labor relations.

But he also recognizes that at age 26 and a few months away from graduating with a bachelor’s degree debt-free, he’s an anomaly among laid-off millworkers, most of whom skew older, and that for the town of Madison, things will never be the same.

Former Madison Paper Industries employee Patrick Daubenberger, interviewedn Thursday, applied for federal assistance and went back to school after the mill closed two years ago.

“When you’re from this area, that’s the pinnacle,” said Daubenberger, who lives in Embden. “You go to high school, work at the paper mill and you build your life around it. Losing the mill was losing a job, but it was also losing the status of the job. It’s a job people look up to. Losing that pride, along with the relationships with everyone you work with, that was one of the toughest things.”

Madison is not alone in the loss of its paper mill, which at the time of closure in 2016 was the town’s largest taxpayer and one of its largest employers. The facility, then owned by UPM-Kymmene Inc. and Northern SC Paper Corp., cited a decline in demand for supercalendered paper, a glossy magazine paper, in announcing the closure, but later acknowledged that New England’s high energy costs were also a factor.

Since 2014, five mills have closed in Maine. Six remain open. The number of jobs in paper manufacturing, once a hallmark industry in Maine, has been cut by nearly half in the last decade, dropping from 8,425 in 2008 to 4,344 in 2017, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Among the losses are the 214 jobs, including Daubenberger’s, at Madison Paper.

As communities around the state grapple with how to move forward and not only recover from the loss of mills but figure out how to keep the forest products industry sustainable, Madison is starting to determine what its future holds.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,” Madison Town Manager Tim Curtis said. “But it’s one day at a time. You’re not going to get that back, in terms of the valuation and the days when you had one company paying about half of the town’s taxes. That was a great run for 100 years. For all of these towns, recovering from that loss is a hard thing, but you do it a little bit at a time.”

There’s no clear timeline for what recovery looks like after a paper mill closes, said Sarah Curran, looking at the future of the state’s forest economy. Curran works for the Maine Development Foundation and runs an initiative called Forest Opportunity Roadmap/Maine.

The group has helped the communities that have lost mills write grants and apply for funding to figure out their futures and has brought the communities together to learn from each other.

“They’re each unique and have their own path, but they’re learning from each other at the same time,” Curran said. “Each town has different things they can build on. It’s just a question of figuring out what the best approach is for that community.”

After the Madison mill’s closure in May 2016, the papermaking facility and a small amount of land were sold to a group called Somerset Acquisition LLC, which had plans to auction off the paper making equipment.

Two hydroelectric dams and the remaining real estate were sold to Eagle Creek, a renewable energy company with an eye toward using the dams to provide electricity to the New England grid.

Curtis said the town is hoping to develop a waste-to-energy facility with the Anson-Madison Sanitary District.

Powered by anaerobic digesters, such a facility could generate electricity that would be key to re-developing the mill site and possibly making it home to other manufacturing.

Right now, though, Curtis said he hasn’t heard any plans about what might take the place of the former mill.

“If you have a waste-to-energy facility that can generate power, you could market the rest of the empty mill,” he said. “It probably wouldn’t be one company, but more than likely several smaller companies that could benefit from that. It’s really speculative and down the road right now. Right now we’re just looking at the feasibility of building an energy facility.”

Together, the former mill properties are worth $55 million — about $180 million less than the $229 million the mill was worth five years ago, in 2013.

Despite the loss, Curtis said Madison’s current tax rate has held relatively steady and remains competitive with surrounding communities. While the tax rate was $19.50 per $1,000 of assessed value in 2015, it’s now at $21.50 per $1,000.

However, the town has worked to trim its annual budget since 2016, starting with consolidating its police force with the county sheriff’s office and making, on average, 11 percent cuts across all departments in the first year after the loss.

On Main Street, business owners said they’ve seen some changes since the mill left, but the effect, for the most part, has been minimal.

Since Madison has another major employer in Backyard Farms, a commercial tomato greenhouse, it’s helped absorb some of the loss.

“The food places were really killed by it,” said Freeman Buzzell III, who was getting his hair cut by his father, longtime Madison barber Freeman ‘Buzzy’ Buzzell Jr., at his barber shop on a recent morning. “They would put in big orders three times a day. All these food places used to get big orders to deliver to the mill. Pretty much every day they knew they had a lot of food to deliver.”

Madison barber Freeman “Buzzy” Buzzell Jr. gives his son Freeman Buzzell III a haircut Thursday in Madison. Buzzell III said food vendors were hurt by the 2016 closure of Madison Paper Industries, because they had delivered a lot of food to workers in the course of a day.

Dennis Wright, who owns Pizzarama, a pizza shop down the street, said that while he was used to getting business from the mill, it started to drop off even before the closure — back in January 2016, when the mill cut back on production hours and ended its “three on, three off” schedule.

Employees used to work three 12-hour shifts followed by three days off, but after the cutbacks; the mill went to a production schedule of five eight-hour days with little to no overtime.

“Yes, it is a big loss for the tax base of the town, but I feel I’m doing pretty good,” Wright said. “I think we’re doing pretty good trying to offset what we lost.”

In addition to the tomato business, the town is in discussions with a prospective strawberry greenhouse looking to open up in Madison’s business park. They’re close enough to Sugarloaf Mountain ski resort that outdoors enthusiasts stop to shop at Renys, a department store on Main Street.

“The only thing that was really affected was my Chippewa sales — steel-toed boots,” said Dean Olmstead, the manager at Renys. “That was affected a little bit, but not a lot. But Kingfield has Poland Springs (bottled water supplier) and they need steel-toed boots. So when I lost it from the mill, I picked it up with Kingfield. Like I said, we haven’t really been affected.”

‘Life goes on, but it hasn’t been easy for some of us.’

— Mike Croteau, a former union president at the Madison mill

In nearby Skowhegan, Sappi Fine Paper’s Somerset Mill has absorbed some of the laid-off Madison workers. The mill is in the middle of a $165 million paper machine rebuild project as it tries to grow its production of consumer packaging products.

Curran, from the For/Maine project, said there’s no way of telling whether the decline of the paper industry in Maine is slowing, but she’s hopeful her group can help the industry players who are left, such as Sappi, to tap into global markets that are growing.

“The industry has been facing significant global market changes, but the players we have now are strong and they’re investing in their facilities and capitalizing on new markets,” she said. “We’re working on analysis right now on how to position Maine’s wood market to be a leader in the forest products economy, because that’s something that will benefit the communities that have lost mills as well as other rural forest products communities.”

Mike Croteau, a former union president at the Madison mill, is one laid-off worker who has gone to work at Sappi.

“Life goes on, but it hasn’t been easy for some of us,” said Croteau, 48. “People should understand that when these mills close, a lot of these guys end up having to get state assistance, whether it’s food stamps or assistance paying for heat. When these facilities close, it really affects a lot of people as well as the community.”

Dennis Wright, owner of the Pizzarama in Madison, and employee Chelsey Lewis prepare food Thursday inside the Main Street business. Wright said that even before the Madison Paper Industries closure in 2016, sales to the millworkers had dropped off because their hours were changed and overtime was cut.

Daubenberger, the young worker who is back in school, said while he plans to stay in the area, he isn’t sure whether other young people will do the same now that the mill is gone.

A high school student who earned mostly C’s and D’s, Daubenberger said he was lucky to get a job at the mill right after graduation and have them pay for his associate degree.

At one point, he earned around $78,000 in one year at Madison Paper. He said it’s important that Maine’s remaining mills do what they can to invest in research and development to keep jobs in the area, and that the state government does what it can to support them.

“The population is dwindling as it is,” Daubenberger said. “Now that the mill’s gone, there’s even less reason to stay. So I think it will be felt in the two school systems. It’s not going to be a process that’s felt one or two years after the fact. It’s going to be something that’s felt five to 10 years down the road.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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