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Appvion closure creates shadow of uncertainty

Northern Blair County became the epicenter of an economic earthquake in 1970 when West Virginia Pulp and Paper Co. announced that it would be closing its plant in Tyrone Borough, putting an estimated 1,000 employees on the unemployment line.

The mill, which opened in 1880, ended up surviving, thanks in large part to community efforts urging the company’s leadership to reconsider.

However, the 700 jobs that company officials did ultimately choose to eliminate, despite the green light they gave for the mill to remain open, represented a cataclysmic development for a community of Tyrone’s size, as well as for the towns nearby that supplied workers for the paper operation.

Seven years after Tyrone’s jobs catastrophe, neighboring Cambria County, particularly the city of Johnstown, became a victim, its victimhood brought about by a devastating flood that pummeled local steel plants as well as numerous other businesses.

Leading up to the flood, the steel industry already was existing on shaky ground for not having upgraded its plants and steelmaking processes to enable it to compete on a level with foreign steel manufacturers. The weeks after the flood brought forth the devastating decisions that steel executives had postponed up to then.

Like in Tyrone less than a decade earlier, unemployment rolls swelled.

Fast-forward to January 2021, when the Norfolk Southern Railroad Co. announced a layoff of 17 mechanical employees at its Juniata Locomotive Shop. The move was the company’s latest local employment directive emanating from the company’s change to Precision Scheduled Railroading concept that is being integrated into rail operations across America.

The Southern Alleghenies region hardly had time to digest the news and ponder whether more negative developments might be on the way for local Norfolk operations when, on

Feb. 15, attention shifted to the Appvion paper mill in Roaring Spring, which is now targeted to cease operations in late March or April.

The closing of what is known as the Spring Mill, which has been operating since 1866, will eliminate 293 jobs amid the coronavirus pandemic that already has caused so much economic hardship on so many other area fronts.

Reacting to the announced Appvion closure, Altoona Blair County Development Corp. President and CEO Stephen McKnight rightly observed that “in the best economic times, this would be devastating news for the local workforce, their families and our community. In the current global climate, it’s even worse.”

McKnight indicated his fear of additional downsizings and closings if pandemic-related restrictions continue much longer.

“We must find our way back quickly,” he said.

Indeed, Appvion depicts the shadow of uncertainty that pervades the area economic scene.

While some elected government representatives might be content to react merely with vocal concern and disappointment — albeit genuine concern and disappointment — about this unwanted economic development, they need to aggressively explore with Appvion officials whether any decision reversal can have any chance of succeeding.

Fifty years ago, Tyrone residents and officials committed themselves to saving what they could of their plant. The same can be said of Johnstown and Cambria County.

Now it is Roaring Spring’s turn to try, with any outside help available.

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