Second mill shuts down in Perry just 6 months after Foley mill closure

PERRY, Fla. (WCTV) - Another mill is shutting down for good in Taylor County.

A company spokesperson confirmed the West Fraser Sawmill in Perry is closing down at the end of March.

“The few remaining workers will complete their last shifts this week,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The equipment will then be assessed for use elsewhere.”

“Following the decision in January 2023 to indefinitely curtail the Perry Sawmill in Florida, which saw a small crew kept onsite to maintain the mill, West Fraser is now moving to permanently close the mill by the end of March. The few remaining workers will complete their last shifts this week. The equipment will then be assessed for use elsewhere.

High fiber costs at Perry and a low-price commodity environment have impaired its ability to profitably operate. Prior to the indefinite curtailment announcement in January 2023, the Perry Sawmill employed approximately 126 people.”

Joyce Wagenaar, Director of Communications, West Fraser

The company previously cut down operations in January of last year, citing “high fiber costs and softening lumber markets” in a press release. The company said the “indefinite curtailment” would cut about 126 employees and reduce the mill’s production by 100 million board feet.

WCTV reached out to all Taylor County commissioners, Perry’s Mayor and the Chamber of Commerce for comment, but all offices were closed on Friday.

A map showing the West Fraser Perry, FL Sawmill(Google Maps, Gray TV)

Job loss in Taylor County

This is the second mill to close down in Perry after the Foley Cellulose Mill closed in the fall of last year, taking over 500 jobs with it.

Georgia Pacific said last month the mill is up for sale, but G.P. is evaluating its value. and that could take over a year.

A citizen’s task force says they found a dozen companies interested in buying the mill, but claim G.P. never started negotiations.

The human impact

With both mills now closed, an estimated nearly 700 jobs have been lost in the last year. According to the most recent U.S. Census data estimates, that adds up to 23% of the total number of people employed in the county.

In 2022, the Florida Department of Health estimated that 15.1% of residents in Taylor County lived below the poverty level, with the median household income sitting around $46,000. Meanwhile, the state’s poverty level sat at 12.9% with the median household income at $67,917.

In January, unemployment was the highest it had been (4.7%) since August 2021 (4.9%) during the COVID-19 Pandemic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Past incidents at West Fraser’s Perry Sawmill

West Fraser’s sawmill in Perry hasn’t been without incidents in recent years.

In September 2019, a large fire broke out for nearly three hours at the mill, destroying a drying kiln in the process. Thankfully, no injuries were reported and all employees were able to report to work that week.

And then in September 2021, Perry Police told WCTV that a then-current employee, Alan Joseph Lawless, was charged with attempted murder among other charges after he allegedly walked into the mill and opened fire. No one was injured in the shooting. According to the Taylor County inmate roster, Lawless was released nearly nine months later. At the time of this update, the county court record website was down, so no further information is available on his case.

Other locations being closed

In January, it was reported by our sister station WCJB that another West Fraser Sawmill in North Florida would be closing its doors. That location is in Bradford County.

Company officials told WCJB that “high fiber costs and soft lumber markets” were making the mill unprofitable. 80 workers lost their jobs in the closure.

West Fraser also announced one other mill closure in Fraser Lake, British Columbia. 175 employees were laid off from that location, but said in a press release “West Fraser expects to mitigate the impact on affected employees by providing work opportunities at other West Fraser operations.”