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#039;Spirit of opportunity#039;

As hundreds face job loss, hope remains

By Jeffery L. Biggs

The announcement that Johnston Industries was closing the Opp Mill of the Opp and Micolas Mills didn't come as a surprise to anyone in the county -- even the workers. What it did do, however, was bring about a feeling of sadness and disappointment. Now, all 170 workers at the Opp Mill will be without a job, and 210 at the Micolas Mill will be unemployed.

In continuous operation since its founding in 1921, the Opp Mill was the oldest continuous industry in Covington County. There are other older businesses in Covington County -- but few, if any, have been as impactful as the Opp and Micolas Mills.

"It's a sad day," said James Kelsoe of the Opp and Covington County Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's not a surprise, but more of a disappointment that the mill is closing."

That sentiment was echoed by Speaker of the House Seth Hammett and Opp Mayor Jerry Boothe

"The news was not unexpected, but it is still shocking none-the-less," Hammett said in a statement Thursday night. "There are few things in life more devastating than losing your job through no fault of your own."

"Life is full of tests," said Boothe. "This community will pull together, weather the storm and be better for it. The families affected need our thoughts and prayers."

Talking with workers at the mill, the sadness is reflected in their tone, but like all things, they see a silver lining in every cloud.

Sharon Smith, a weaver in the Opp Weaving Division has been at the Opp Mill for a year and one month. She's no stranger to shutdowns though, having worked for Klinert's in Elba for 17 years prior to its closure.

"I'm from Opp, and as somebody from here, I always heard people talk about going to work at the mill," Smith said. "I'll be all right. It hurts, but it will hurt those who are two to three years away from retirement the most. I know I'll be able to find a job easier than some of the other workers simply because I'm younger. I'm not sure exactly what I'll do though, I might go to trade school or something like that."

Ameilia Moore, a 26-year veteran of the mill, says her feelings are similar to Smith's.

"My first thought wasn't anger, but just sadness," Moore said. "I wasn't surprised by the announcement because it's tough to compete with the overseas markets. It's a family here, and although I don't know what's next, I do know we'll all help each other get through it.

"The mill supported Opp for years. That's where the stability for the city came from, but Opp will survive and move on. We've all had a real good living here and been able to raise our kids and put them through school. We'll find something else."

Finding something else is at the top of the list for officials in Opp, and a concern for other citizens in Opp.

"The mill's been there for years, so what's next? That's all some people know," said Vivian Green, a worker at the Opp Dollar General Store.

"Those people need a job, and my son and daughter work at the Micolas Mill, and we're not sure what the future is there," said Dora McBride, another clerk at the Opp Dollar General. "But, it's going to hurt more than just those workers, it's going to hurt us as well. People won't have as much expendable income, and they'll only buy the necessities. They won't buy anything extra."

"I just hope Opp doesn't become a ghost town," Green said. "It's a great town."

Support for the displaced workers and the town isn't hard to find, though, as officials aggressively seek new industry.

"The Covington County Economic Development Commission continues to have my firm commitment to assist them in any way possible in their efforts to attract new jobs to our area," Hammett said.

"We are working at this time to organize a job fair, and we are contacting existing industries that are expanding to assist them in any way we can to speed that process up, creating jobs for some of these workers," Boothe said.

"We are actively recruiting new industry and doing everything we can to entice other jobs into Opp," Kelsoe said. "There are a lot of hopeful prospects out there and the spirit of opportunity will continue. We'll get through this and be stronger."