The Maryland Department of Commerce is maintaining a hopeful outlook for former Verso employees and the paper mill in Luke.
“I think what we see is optimistic, overall,” Secretary Kelly M. Schulz said during her visit to Garrett County last week.
Gov. Larry Hogan appointed her secretary in January after Mike Gill stepped down to take a position with Evergreen Advisors, an investment banking and corporate advisory firm.
Schulz previously served as secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. She is also a former state delegate.
About 675 Verso employees lost their jobs when the company ceased operations at the mill this spring. Hundreds of other area residents with mill-related jobs and businesses were also impacted by the closure.
The secretary said companies have been “seeking out” the displaced workers.
“People are intentionally going and doing some direct recruiting of employees that they know have gotten laid off, both in Garrett County and Allegany County,” Schulz said. “It’s an outreach effort by the business community that I think the rest of the community is very grateful for.”
She indicated the employees’ skills — particularly those related to science, engineering and mathematics — are very beneficial to businesses that are having difficulty finding individuals with those specific abilities.
“Gov. Hogan’s number-one priority when we first heard about this (mill closure) was to make sure that the employees were going to be safe, that there was going to be a safe landing spot,” Schulz said, “by working with the Division of Unemployment Insurance, the Department of Labor, and just making sure everything was seamless.”
Obtaining the Trade Adjustment Assistance designation also helped, she noted, as it qualified the workers for training funding.
“They can come to Garrett College
, and they can look at other sources of training for new careers,” the secretary said.
She noted about 16 Verso workers are currently enrolled in GC’s Mountaintop Truck Driving Institute. Several others are receiving instruction at the Western Correctional Institution to become correctional officers. More former Verso employees will be part of the next class as well.
“This is a huge help for the Department of Correction because it’s been so difficult for them to find workers,” Schulz said, “and now for those employees to have a good-paying job with all of the benefits that the state offers.”
The secretary said her department also remains hopeful that something “will happen” at the Luke mill.
“I think everybody understands that it’s probably not going to the same business or at the same magnitude of what’s been there, but everyone’s anxious to see what it can become in its next re-imagined self,” she said.
Schulz noted some companies have expressed interest in the site and have toured the facilities.
“Our staff at the department continues to vet companies and forward them on to the Verso company,” Schulz said. “But Verso doesn’t always update us on what happens when we send companies over to them.”
The secretary’s stop in Garrett County was part of her plan to visit all of Maryland’s counties and Baltimore City to learn firsthand about specific economic needs.
“Garrett County marks the 13th county that we’ve been, so we’re over halfway done,” she said. “I think what it’s showing us is that — although there are many similarities that businesses have when it comes to starting or growing a business — there’s also uniqueness about different parts of the state that have different sorts of barriers.”
To help address those difficulties, several departments have come together to assist businesses.
“The Department of Commerce works with all of our other agency partners because economic development and business growth touches so many different types of agencies,” Schulz said. “So the governor formed the commerce subcabinet, which is all of the agencies that have anything to do with business and its life cycle: the Maryland Department of the Environment, Department of Transportation, Department of Labor and Department of Housing and Community Development.”
“That entire ecosystem is what helps the businesses moving forward,” she said.
Schulz indicated it was an “honest conversation” about local challenges, how those challenges differ from other counties, how other rural counties tackle “big issues” and how utilizing the Department of Commerce’s best practices can resolve problems.
“I think my team that’s here with me from the department has gotten a lot of take-aways and a lot of action items in order to be able to follow up with specific individuals,” she said, “which is the whole point of this trip.”
The members included Karen Glenn Hood, director of media relations and public affairs; Andrew H. Sargent, senior business development representative; and Elizabeth Affleck Carven, director of regional growth and retention.