“Traffic stopped” when the news hit last week that Domtar planned on idling operations at its Espanola-based pulp and paper operations.
So described a local hairdresser, who requested her name not be used.
Although her comment to Sudbury.com might be hyperbolic, she said there was a noticeable shift in the people’s attitude as they processed the potentially devastating news.
Espanola’s 2021 Statistics Canada population count was 5,185, and approximately 450 Domtar employees will be directly impacted by the pulp mill’s operations being put on pause.
Sudbury.com visited Espanola on Saturday afternoon to get a feel for how community members are handling the news, and how they predict it will affect their hometown.
“A lot of people will be laid off, not just from the mill but everywhere,” Cortina Restaurant head server Christa Campbell told Sudbury.com while pouring wine into a decanter for customers.
“We’ll probably see a lot of the younger families leave, and it’ll become an older community —a retirement community.”
Born and raised in Espanola, Campbell, 48, said her husband worked at the pulp mill until he retired, her son works there, and various friends and family all clock in at the Domtar mill.
It’s by far the community’s largest single employer, and the community’s history has been intertwined with the pulp and paper industry, originating as a company-owned town.
Campbell said she doesn’t quite know what to make of the pulp mill’s impending shutdown. A Domtar statement indicated the company might either sell or restart operations at some point, but uncertainty lingers.
“It’s sudden and shocking,” she said.
A few blocks down Centre Street to the north, Jenna Gaspardo, 16, was found working behind the cash register at Created 4 You, a small craft gift shop her family owns.
At school, she said teachers were talking about a potential school closure at some point in the future, and there was talk of Espanola becoming a “ghost town” as people begin relocating to Sudbury.
Her mother, Nicole, contacted by phone, isn’t as pessimistic.
“We’re the gateway to Manitoulin,” she said. “We need to capitalize on that.”
The Gaspardo family relocated to Espanola from southern Ontario approximately two years ago, attracted to the area by its natural beauty and small-town atmosphere.
They opened the gift shop in January, since which time Nicole said business has steadily picked up.
The pulp mill’s shutdown will certainly affect people, Nicole said, describing it as “tragic” news for much of the community.
It won’t, however, be the death knell for Espanola, she said, noting that people will find new sources of income both out of a love for the region and economic necessity.
“I don’t see where the people are going to move out in today’s economy,” she said. “Whatever house they sell here, they’re going to have to buy at a higher price somewhere else.”
Currently lacking such organizations as a local business improvement area or chamber of commerce, she said the community can take any number of new measures to help shore up its economic future. She plans on connecting with the town’s elected officials to help hash out a plan.
“We need to keep this town going,” Nicole said. “We need to see if we can draw in some kind of bigger factory.”
Outside her family’s shop, a steady flow of traffic was seen making its way down Centre Street, through the heart of Espanola. The city’s main drag is also part of Highway 6, which links the Trans-Canada Highway with Manitoulin Island.
Although many people pass through on their way to Manitoulin Island, Nicole said, “people will come to Espanola if there’s stuff to offer people.”
A block east at the Venture Lanes bowling alley, married couple Don and Catherine Drouin were found standing behind the front desk while a family bowled in one of the lanes, the sound of cracking pins cutting through a background of ’80s pop music being played over the stereo.
“The town’s not going to shut down,” Don said with a shrug. “Something’s going to happen.”
The couple relocated to Espanola approximately eight years ago from Whitehorse, to be closer to family. The bowling alley they took over was successful from the start, until the pandemic slowed things down.
The business is still rebounding, though Catherine said she’s worried the mill closure will negatively impact small businesses throughout the region.
As people find work in places like Sudbury, she said they’re unlikely to want to commute into the long term.
At Espanola’s Sukhdev Restaurant, owners and siblings Amrit and Gurprett Singh reacted to last week’s Domtar news by offering a 20 per cent discount for families of mill employees, encouraging other business owners to follow suit and help out wherever they can.
An immigrant from India, Amrit said Espanola has always been welcoming of him and supportive of the Indian community at large.
“Everyone feels sad, so we wanted to do something for them,” he told Sudbury.com. “This is the only thing I can do.”
With the trickle-down economic impacts slated to affect the broader community in the coming months, Amrit said times might be tough for a lot of area residents for some time.
The unionized workers at Domtar’s Espanola pulp and paper mill have joined the broader community in processing last week’s news, which they only caught wind of on Sept. 6.
Out of the 450 jobs impacted, Unifor said a handful of workers will be required to keep the mill in working order during this period.
"Losing this many jobs for a year or more will impact the whole community so we are of course hoping the shutdown will end as soon as possible," Unifor Local 74 president Chris Presley said in a media release. "Right now, we're focused on supporting the workers through this transition."
The Town of Espanola’s elected officials are also coming to grips with the mill’s impending shutdown.
“As a third-generation family employee (a common story for our plant) in Espanola, I, too, share in the hardship we all now face,” Coun. Johnathan Nadeau posted to social media.
“It is hard to see now, but there is life beyond Domtar, and we will all cross that bridge together.”
Northern Ontario Business editor Ian Ross recently connected with Mayor Douglas Gervais, who visited mill workers at the plant gate for the 6 a.m. shift on Sept. 7.
“They’re in bad shape,” Gervais said. “Like everybody else, it came pretty sudden.”
Like many in Espanola, Gervais, a lifelong resident, has a personal connection to the mill. He worked there from 1970 to 1973, as did his father. His brother, nephews and grandson still work there.
“We will survive it; we have to. It’s part of life and you go on,” he said. “Espanola will be here, and it’s not going to break us. ... I feel confident we’ll get through this.”
Fortunately, he said, there are jobs around. The Interfor lumber mill in nearby Nairn Centre is always looking for workers as is the mining industry.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.
— with files from NorthernOntarioBusiness.com