Notes from Windward: #55

How the Closing of Champion Lumber Mill
Has Affected the Klickitat Community:

Report Two

The people most closely affected by the closing of the lumber mill are those that worked there. To get the perspective of an unemployed mill worker, I interviewed a woman who had worked there for 16 years before the mill closed. Her husband had worked there for 23 years. They have two children that go to school in Klickitat.

Within the families in the community there has been stress over the closing of the mill. People have had to go out of town to find new jobs. For those who had worked at the mill almost all of their adult lives it was a challenge to do something different. Unemployment didn't give them the income they had been used to, and they no longer had the benefits the mill had provided.

"We were very fortunate. My husband found a job right away with the county in Goldendale, and I went to school. Because of the years in the mill when we made good money, we were able to put enough away so we haven't had to struggle, but I know there's families that have. I didn't see a lot of families splitting up or divorces over the mill closure. Sometimes something like that brings people closer. But I'm sure there were problems that I don't even know about or recognize."

"I know my kids were scared at first when the mill closed. I guess because they saw me scared. It affected me a lot. I knew it was coming, but still hearing those words, I thought, 'what in the heck am I going to do at 36?' But, things have worked out. Life goes on I guess."

Because the mill shut down was related to the exportation of lumber, Champion was able to provide a program of schooling for the employees who wanted to take advantage of retraining. The program pays for the schooling 100%, pays for all school supplies, and pays $ .35 a mile to travel to school. The employees also would be paid a weekly unemployment rate. For this woman, it was a program she couldn't pass up. She is going to Columbia Gorge Community College in The Dalles to be an instructional assistant for special education and will be graduating in January.

"When the mill was shut down or on strike, I donated my time to the school anyway. It's something I like to do. I'll have my degree, and even if I'm not using it now, I'll always have it."

"Right now I'm working two different jobs part time, and neither has to do with the school. I just got on part time with PUD, and I've been flagging for James Dean Construction. They usually don't have that much work, but this year happens to be good for them because of the flood."

The flood did bring some jobs into Klickitat. Some of the people that got jobs because of the flood damage are still working with one of the companies on other jobs. Even the people who worked part time were helped by those jobs.

The unemployment has already run out for a lot of people. Even for those that are going to school, it will run out in August, and most of them still have six months of school before they finish their degrees. The program will still pay for the schooling, but without the unemployment benefits, they will have to find some source of income for living expenses.

"Since I've been working part time, I've extended my unemployment through December. I feel like I'm one of the fortunate ones because I know there's a lot of people out there, I don't know what they're going to do."

When the mill first closed some people moved out of town. Others stayed with hopes of the mill reopening. After two years when it didn't seem like that was a possibility, more people moved. Even some of the retired people that were stable in the community started moving out, too.
"It just seems like this year it has been pretty sad. It seems like you didn't see any changes, then all of a sudden now a handful of retired people left. Since grandma and grandpa left, mom and dad left, then all their kids left, too. We've seen that happen to three different families here in the last three or four months. We're seeing all that now and it just seems so scary."
To find any jobs now people have to drive out of town sometimes an hour to an hour and a half each way. People that work in Hood River or The Dalles would think that a half hour or forty-five minute drive is better than living in the cities. This family did not want to move so they tried to find jobs locally.

"We're lucky enough now just to be in Goldendale which is a half hour drive. A lot of companies want you to live in their town. My husband and I talked about that, but we don't want to leave the area."
Some of the people moving in want to get out of the cities and go to the country. They want to be able to afford to rent homes, and living in the Klickitat community is cheaper than living in The Dalles or Hood River. The people moving into the community also like having their children in a small school.

Because Klickitat has a small school, the teachers can be more personal with the children. When the mill closed and people started moving away, the teachers talked about that with the children and helped them make the transition. The teachers helped the new students coming in as well.

With the mill closed down, the community lost a lot of families that supported the school, and more low income families started moving into town. The main thing that changed about the school was the funding. This year, for the first time in fifteen years, the school levy didn't pass. Now that Klickitat is a poorer district, if the levy passes next time, the school will receive more money from the state.

"They talk all the time about sending our kids to Lyle. I pray that never happens. Sometimes the poorer your district, the better off you are, sad to say."
Besides losing the sponsorship of a lot of the social activities, the school lost in other ways when Champion closed the mill. For years Champion had also bought page ads in the school annual. The school has lost that. The fund raising has been affected because people don't have the money they once had from the mill. Champion is not there to support the fund raising activities.

When the mill was running, it helped a lot of the high school graduates get through college. They could work for three or four months out of the summer and have their college paid for the rest of the year. A lot of students didn't even come home from college this year because the jobs aren't here for them.

"A few of the kids that have no ambition will stay here and be bums here just as well as anywhere. Other kids that have ambitions are going to college and getting out. Some of them probably thought they could stay here and work at the mill like their dad did and their grandpa did, but now they don't have any other choice but to go to school or at least get out, because the jobs aren't here."
There may not have been any more social activities when the mill was open, but there was a lot more support because of the mill. Less people are going to the ball games now because they don't have the money to spend. There are still baseball tournaments and other activities that bring people in and give the school kids a chance to make some money even if it's not as much as it once was.

There are social events in town where people can go free of admission. There are band concerts and plays at the school. There are church services and other social gatherings through the churches. Klickitat Canyon Days has a parade and free entertainment so people of the community can get together socially without having to spend money. Sometimes even unusual circumstances can bring people together.

"It was nice to see that during the flood, it brought people closer again. We all rely on each other, and since we are such a close-knit community, there still is that left. The high school kids were down there sandbagging, and everybody was helping everybody. The next day when the sun came out, people were going from home to home asking questions to see what had happened to their neighbors. So I guess if nothing else, if we don't have jobs, we still have that closeness of community. That doesn't seem to have changed."
Without the support of the mill the other businesses in town don't have the customers they once had. One family that moved away had owned the store and had been very supportive of the community. They would have closed the store if they hadn't sold it. Since the Chevron rebuilt, they have added a convenience store as well. There doesn't seem to be enough money in town to keep both stores going. The cafe that had been in business for years when Klickitat was a mill town had to close after the mill shut down because of a great decrease in customers.

"We've changed, too. We used to go down on Friday and Saturday nights and have a few beers and a pizza. That's one of the things we don't do anymore."
People thought it was a good sign when the mill sold. The company had too much money already invested in it not to buy it, but they say they have no intention of doing anything with it for three or four months. There are some people in town that are still hoping the mill will reopen so they can get their jobs back.

"A lot of them are close to retirement age. There were some older guys there that didn't know how to read or write so I guess they felt that school wasn't an option for them, but there are programs to help people like that. There's a few out there that couldn't go get another job. They didn't have the diplomas or the GED's and didn't even know where to begin, that are still there, so I'm sure they're hoping."

"I still hope the mill will reopen or somebody else will come and do something with it, because I think that's our only survival. I can see it becoming a retirement and low income town if the mill doesn't open. I'd like to see it back the way it was."
For the unemployed workers, the closing of the mill meant a loss of incomes, and even with new jobs or unemployment, they didn't come close to the incomes they had gotten accustomed to. For most of them this meant a significant decrease in discretionary income. They no longer have the money to spend on the things they once did. Chapter Seven of the Flora text, Rural Communities: Legacy and Change, talks about increased consumption; pp. 171 and 172 discusses the impact of consumption on low income families and how discretionary income is spent. When the workers had the income from the lumber mill, they had a high discretionary income and could afford higher consumption. When they no longer had those high income jobs, what they consumed was limited by their income. They no longer had as much discretionary income to spend, so what we're seeing in this community is decreased consumption.

There are many reasons why some people chose to move away from the community, and there are many reasons why some people chose to stay. One of the reasons some people chose to stay was because of a sense of community. On page 14 of the Flora text, one definition of community is a shared sense of identity held by a group of people. The closeness that people felt was brought out by the flood which was a crisis situation that brought people together in this shared sense of identity. Everyone was in the same situation.

Families in the community are concerned for the future of their children. Now that the children of the mill workers won't be able to follow in their parents' footsteps, the parents are concerned about what kinds of legacies they will give their children. Pages 80 and 81 of the Flora text, describe that the legacy parents pass on to their children depend not only on the parents' experiences but also on the economy and the options the economy creates for families. The legacies that the parents in the Klickitat community are passing on to their children are changing from what it once was. Now that the mill no longer represents a secure future for their children, parents are more concerned that education and job training are the tools needed for survival. As referenced on pages 92 and 93 of the Flora text, those parents who at one time would have seen the mill as a way for their children to stay in the community are now realizing that for their children to achieve more, they will have to leave the community.

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