Slow death consumes a town

Luke: In the shadow of the paper mill that gave it life, a Western Maryland village fades away.

March 25, 2004|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

LUKE - This Appalachian mill town is clinging to life. The school, the barbershop and the general store are long gone. A main street has been permanently closed.

Fewer than 80 residents, most of them elderly, remain, a shadow of the more than 1,000 who once lived in this far-west Maryland town. The giant paper mill here buys and razes their houses as they die, turning the cramped hillside streets into an eerie checkerboard.

"There were houses all through down here, and they're all gone," said Mayor Joseph W. LaRue, 75, as he led a tour that felt more like an archaeological survey. "At the rate people are disappearing, I would say this town is going to be gone."

But this is not the familiar tale of the company town decimated by the closure of the company.

The MeadWestvaco paper mill still employs 1,250 people and rolls out 1,450 tons of coated paper a day for glossy magazines and catalogs. William Luke started Westvaco Corp. here in 1888, and under his heirs it grew into a multinational firm before its merger with the Mead Corp. in 2002 formed North America's fourth-largest paper maker.

Somewhere along the way, however, the fortunes of the big company and the small town diverged. And now, it seems, the company would just as soon see the town melt back into the mountainside.

The turning point came this year, when the mill made clear that it would no longer treat the town as a child worthy of unremitting love.

Luke had tried to save its last civic institution - Town Hall, with its tiny police force, public works crew, and two clerks - by raising the mill's taxes last year by $100,000, to $509,000, a 25 percent increase.

Mill executives complained to the Allegany County commissioners and to state lawmakers. They hinted that labor was cheaper in places such as China. They noted that the mill's tax payments already make up 90 percent of Luke's budget.

The county's state delegates introduced legislation to block the tax increase and accused Luke of putting its petty interests ahead of the economically distressed county's last large industrial employer.

"No offense," Del. Kevin Kelly reportedly snapped in a conference call with town officials this month, "but MeadWestvaco is more important to the county than your municipality."

The local Cumberland Times-News leapt into the debate with editorials highlighting two striking facts: Luke had one town employee for every 16 residents and a budget equal to $6,750 per townsperson - higher than any other Maryland municipality.

Tiny Luke didn't know what had hit it.

Municipal defeat

And so it buckled. At a town meeting last week, the council not only effectively undid last year's tax increase but voted to phase out its manufacturing tax completely, saving MeadWestvaco roughly $250,000 a year.

The town has had to hack its budget from $540,000 to a proposed $318,000. It has already laid off a police officer and two maintenance employees, and it plans pay cuts for the remaining five workers, the council and the mayor.

"I hope we're parting as good neighbors," LaRue said at the sparsely attended council meeting last week, casting a glance at Roger A. Dandridge, the mill manager.

"We are," Dandridge replied, scarcely looking up from his lap.

But beneath the handshakes and the vows of renewed partnership, the mayor sees the town's defeat as one more shove toward extinction.

Decent services - promptly plowed streets, a police officer's helping hand for an old woman locked out of her house - are the last thing Luke has to offer its dwindling population.

But rising municipal insurance rates after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the shrinking tax base have made it hard for the town to live within its means, he says.

`Why come back?"

"There's not even a grocery store in this town, there's not a bank, there's not even a cemetery, and the closest Wal-Mart that we have is at least 20 miles away," LaRue says. "There's not even a church. So why would anyone want to come back to Luke?"

Luke is not the only struggling patch of Allegany County, where declines in the mining, railroad and textiles industries have been only partly offset by an emerging prison and tourism economy.

But no other Maryland city or town has seen so steep a population drop or kept so many town employees for so few people, says Scott A. Hancock, executive director of the Maryland Municipal League, an advocacy group for the state's 157 incorporated cities and towns.

The last time a Maryland municipality disincorporated was in 1964, he said, when the state stripped four small towns of their charters for failing to file annual financial reports.

Hancock says he understands Luke's reluctance to give up its charter after 82 years of self-rule. "It's a matter of dignity," he says. "People like to control their own destiny."

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