The paper mill in Palatka has been a major part of the North Florida employment landscape for 70 years and Friday’s announcement of a $400 million investment by Georgia-Pacific is a strong sign it’s going to remain vital for years to come.
Georgia-Pacific president and CEO Christian Fischer helped make the public announcement at the St. Johns River Center in Palatka.
The investment will be used to build a new paper machine that uses “through-air-dried technology” that will boost the Georgia-Pacific tissue and towel business.
Upgrading the plant will lead to an expected increase in the workforce of about 80 full-time jobs, adding to the current workforce of 850. The company also expects to have an average of 160 construction or other contract-related workers at the mill throughout the building project, which is expected to be finished in 2019.
“At Georgia-Pacific, we believe in a couple of very simple things: We believe that you’ve got to think long-term. We believe that we want to grow,” Fischer said. “And we know that we can only do that by understanding our customers’ needs better.”
Talk of the pending investment has circulated throughout the area. Putnam County officials have been referring to the mill upgrade as “Project Purple” as Georgia-Pacific kept its ideas under wraps until a final decision was made.
Putnam County Commission Chairman Larry Harvey said the success of the mill goes a long way toward the economic success of the county and even the region as a whole. He grew up understanding the importance of the mill, having a grandfather and father who worked there.
“It really needed to happen in our community and our region,” Harvey said of the investment. “This is going to be a great thing for not only Putnam County, but the northeast Florida regional area. This commitment is going to take this plant out for generations to come.”
Fischer said it’s no accident his company has made the commitment to the future of the Palatka mill. He said it has been a solid contributor to Georgia-Pacific for years. The investment is a sign the company expects that to continue.
“The $400 million investment that we’re announcing today, I think, just underscores the long history of investing both at the mill and the state of Florida,” Fischer said. “The mill has been a key economic contributor in Putnam, Clay, St. Johns and Duval counties.
“We feel confident that this $400 million and everything else we’re investing here is just another brick in the foundation to make this mill competitive and successful in the long run.”
Prior to Friday’s announcement, Georgia-Pacific said it has already spent $306 million in the last 10 years in capital investment and acquisitions in the Palatka mill. The company has invested $1.5 billion statewide in the last decade.
Part of the reason Georgia-Pacific felt comfortable putting more money into the Palatka mill was the area’s available workforce, Fischer said. While employing many Putnam County residents, St. Johns and other area counties figure in the hiring.
“You’ve got to take it into account because you need people to be able to come and do the job with the quality and consistency to be successful,” Fischer said. “So it’s certainly a factor. We had the confidence that we can find the right laborers from the adjacent communities around here to do the job well.”
Also part of Friday’s announcement was Mike Griffith, who was named vice president of Georgia-Pacific Palatka Operations about five weeks ago.
He said the economic benefits of Georgia-Pacific’s investment go beyond just one county.
“When you just think about the impact not only to Putnam County, but to the whole Florida region, it should be fairly significant,” he said. “The talent that’s available not only in Putnam but the surrounding counties was one of the deciding factors.
“When the company makes an investment like this, it truly is: ‘How capable is the workforce?’ I think we also consider (that) you have additional talent and how difficult it will be to compete to bring in that additional talent.”