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Newton Falls Paper, once the largest employer for miles around. Photo: Mark Kurtz
Newton Falls Paper, once the largest employer for miles around. Photo: Mark Kurtz

What's next for towns like Newton Falls?

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This summer, a Canadian company called Scotia Investments has been auctioning off parts of the old Newton Falls paper mill in southern St. Lawrence County.

It's the latest painful chapter for a region of the North Country that has fought for years to maintain some part of its old industrial economy.

Now that the mill is being liquidated, new questions are being asked about what comes next for towns where jobs are scarce and hope is wearing thin.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

After they cut up the paper making equipment here a few weeks ago, it's now just a shell. It's tough, really tough.
A half dozen men stand in the wood panel lobby of the Newton Falls Paper Mill, waiting while an auction firm in the next room tries to sell off thousands of acres of timberland.

This is what the end of an era looks like as the mill and all of its holdings are slowly sold off to the highest bidder.

Terrance Roberts and Mike Lennox from Canton operate a hunting camp on a parcel of land that’s on the auction block.

"It’s a heartbreak," Roberts says.  "My brother worked here for thirty-something years and parts of my family worked here."

"My wife’s grandfather worked here for many many years. So it’s going to affect a lot of people through the history of the North Country," Lennox adds.

The paper making equipment has already been hauled away. The buildings here sit empty, and the jobs are gone for good.

APA commissioner Sherman Craig from Wanakena says the closure of the Newton Falls mill means tough times for his region of the Adirondacks. (Photo:  Brian Mann)
APA commissioner Sherman Craig from Wanakena says the closure of the Newton Falls mill means tough times for his region of the Adirondacks. (Photo: Brian Mann)
Sherman Craig says, "After they cut up the paper making equipment here a few weeks ago, it’s now just a shell."

Sherman Craig lives in nearby Wannakena and sits on the Adirondack Park Agency Board. He points to the fact that this part of southern St. Lawrence County was once a thriving industrial region. There was a massive iron mine, the old J and L steel mill, papermaking. But now there are only painful questions about what will drive the economy next.

"Oh it’s very tough, very tough," Craig laments.

The decline of this corner of the North Country has been made more painful by the fact that for nearly a decade it seemed like solutions might be found. Working with the state of New York, local leaders again and again found new buyers, new companies that promised to reopen the old paper mill. In September of 2002, then Governor George Pataki traveled to Newton Falls for a town wide celebration and said, "The people of the North County can out-compete anybody in any corner of the globe, so this is your victory! This is your accomplishment."

But again and again those deals fell through. Chris Westbrook chairs the Clifton-Fine Economic Development Corporation which has spearheaded efforts to attract new investment. He says this latest setback, this latest closure was heartbreaking, "When we found Scotia Investments out of Nova Scotia, we were all so very very happy. But then when the markets turned, you know they had to close it down, and we were still hopeful that Scotia Investments would stay with it. But, lo and behold, they decided to liquidate that asset."

The loss of southern St. Lawrence County’s industrial sector has sent shockwaves through the towns of Clifton and Fine. But not everyone is convinced that heavy industry is gone for good. A few miles from the Newton Falls mill, George Persson stands on the shore of what looks like a vast gorgeous Adirondack Lake, "Two and a half miles by a quarter to a half mile wide, depending where you are, on an average of 150 ft deep."

George Persson is caretaker at the old Benson Mine site in southern St. Lawrence County.  (Photo:  Brian Mann)
George Persson is caretaker at the old Benson Mine site in southern St. Lawrence County. (Photo: Brian Mann)
Persson is caretaker for the old Benson Iron Mine. This lake is actually the old mining pit, a vast hold in the ground that once produced some of the best ore in the country. Person says that the rock that was blasted out of the pit could be used for road and gravel projects. He also hopes that companies will eventually buy up the old tailings pile to extract the kind of rare earth minerals used in cell phones in computers, "If this stuff is mineable, it will be worth more the rare earth in this pile than all the iron that was ever taken."

But as the years go by these industrial sites sit empty. No investors have shown any interest, and the kind of hope that Pearson expresses can start to sound like nostalgia. A yearning for something lost for good. You know you’ve lived through some tough times watching the community shrink like that.

Pearson said, "They had about 500 men working here. School district was about 1200 at the time. Right now we’ve got 312."

The local hospital, the smallest in New York State, has also struggled to stay afloat. Chris Westbrook, with Clifton-Fine’s Economic Development Cooperation says he too thinks these old industrial sites can be repurposed. Maybe not attracting really big businesses that create hundreds of jobs, but driving some kind of new prosperity.

Westbrook said, "My vision would be is that it would be some kind of bioenergy facility, some kind of wood products industry. The value is that we have two industrial sites within the park that are classified industrial sites, and I think that’s really important and makes it helpful or easy for an organization to come in and develop a company there."

Should the old railroad tracks be rehabilitated?  That debate has been revived now that the paper mill is closed.  (Photo: Brian Mann)
Should the old railroad tracks be rehabilitated? That debate has been revived now that the paper mill is closed. (Photo: Brian Mann)
One big question here is whether the state of New York should still fund an effort to revive an old industrial rail spur that once operated in southern St. Lawrence County. The Empire State Development Corporation has agreed to spend $10 million on the train project. But that was when the paper mill was still operating. Westbrook says he thinks it’s still a good investment.

Westbrook says, "It’s important that we spend money wisely, and we don’t want a railroad to nowhere. However, we almost need that railroad to encourage that business to come in."

Another troubling question that local leaders face going forward is the status of the Newton Falls mill itself. The buildings are empty, but some people here including Sherman Craig from Wanakena say they might contain old pollution, old contamination, "So we’re worried that we’re going to have another J and L, and you’re familiar with that problem since the ‘70s."

Efforts to finally clean up the old J and L steel mill site nearby have moved forward. But the dilapidated blue buildings still sit by the highway at the edge of town. A symbol of what happens when old industries die and nothing takes there place.

Scotia Investments hasn’t disclosed whether the 4,000 acres of land put up for sale last month found a buyer.

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