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Former millworkers scratch for jobs

After Three Rivers’ closing, they see a little help as federal program agrees to pay for education

Jacob Barker Correspondent

Merry Leach is the last employee of Three Rivers Timber. The former human resources director sits alone in the office of the now-silent lumber mill, answering the phone while the defunct company finishes being acquired by its creditor, Wells Fargo. At the end of October she’ll leave, and the mill – two years ago the largest employer in the little town of Kamiah, Idaho – will be completely empty.

“I’ve been coming out here by myself for quite some time now,” she said. “I’m ready to move on.”

The lumber mill’s saws stopped in December. The company was hit first by the drop in demand for new homes. It was finished off when its loans were called in during the financial crisis.

Although the mill changed hands a few times over the past 30 years, it was always a pillar of Kamiah’s economy. The closure at the end of 2008 put 108 people out of work. Since then, they have struggled to find jobs in the town of 1,000 on the edge of the Clearwater National Forest.

Last week, 97 of Three Rivers’ former workers got good news: The U.S. Department of Labor approved Trade Adjustment Assistance for them, which pays for retraining and education for those laid off because of foreign outsourcing or foreign import competition.

Leach had asked the Department of Labor to consider Three Rivers’ former employees for the program because of the company’s competition with Canadian lumber imports. The government denied the request at first but reversed its decision after she appealed.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program covers anything from trade school to an associate’s degree, said Jenny Hemly, the program coordinator for the Idaho Department of Labor.

Although Trade Adjustment Assistance may help the laid-off workers find new jobs, there are few jobs in the area. Kamiah has long relied on the lumber industry, and Three Rivers was the largest mill in the area.

Bill Mulligan, who bought the mill and started Three Rivers Timber in 1996, said he always struggled to compete with Canadian lumber. Mulligan built a viable business, putting $16 million into upgrading the mill. But Three Rivers didn’t generate enough profit to weather the housing market’s collapse in late 2007.

“As a new company, we just really didn’t have deep pockets,” he said.

When financial panic began in September 2008, the price of lumber dropped even more. In November, the bank called in Three Rivers’ loans, and the plant had to shut down. After Three Rivers’ collapse, even Mulligan, 65, has to go back to work, and he worries about the town and his former employees.

“They can leave the Kamiah area, but certainly there’s not employment available in the area, not much,” he said.

Dan Meyers, who worked at the mill for 20 years, plans to use the federal aid to finish nursing school. Another program has been paying for classes at the Clarkston branch of Walla Walla Community College, but those benefits will run out before he finishes.

“It’s a challenge, but I really do find it interesting,” Meyers said. “It was an opportunity to do something different in life.”

While the aid may be good news for Three Rivers’ former employees, the town could suffer more loss. Trade Adjustment Assistance also pays relocation costs if the recipient has to move out of the area for a job.

Kamiah Mayor Dale Schneider, who owns a local mobile-home park, said his vacancy rate is higher than it’s ever been. He’s not sure what one of his remaining tenants, a former Three Rivers employee, will do when his unemployment insurance runs out.

“There’s just no work,” Schneider said.

Schneider doesn’t know how many jobs the community lost after the mill closed. Truck drivers, the chip mill and local stores all took a hit, he said. But the unemployment rate is high in most places, he noted.

“That’s why I think you’re seeing people hanging on yet in Kamiah,” Schneider said. “As far as them just packing up and moving, where are they going to go?”

Residents hope someone will buy the mill and reopen it, but its auction this year was canceled because there were no bids.

Kamiah will soon have one new business. When Leach finishes at the mill next week, she will open a restaurant with her son-in-law, a culinary school graduate from the University of Montana. Adine’s Restaurant will start serving on Nov. 1.

“It’s too bad what happened to the community and the businesses here,” Leach said. “But you can’t change it. You’ve got to move ahead.”

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