In 1957, Australia's Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, stood before a distinguished audience in Sydney and publicly celebrated the opening of a new manufacturing venture in regional NSW - the Shoalhaven Paper Mill.
The gala dinner was the culmination of a seven-year development process, led by two UK manufacturers and joined enthusiastically by the federal and state governments, which offered financial grants and other assistance to bring the new paper mill to life.
Fast forward almost 60 years, and the scene could not be more different. The Shoalhaven Paper Mill is in its dying days, awaiting news on the timing of its closure. The financial assistance and political support have dried up, and the mill's Japanese owners have cut it adrift. But isn't change inevitable? Does it matter? You bet it does, for reasons that should make us all stop and think.
First, the 75 employees at the mill will be out of a job - in a place where good jobs are hard to come by. And make no mistake, these were good jobs. Throughout its history, the Shoalhaven Paper Mill maintained a reputation as one of the best employers in the Nowra region, offering relatively high wages, good conditions and job security. Some of these advantages were chipped away by successive owners since the 1990s, but the mill still represented the top end of employment in the Shoalhaven.
Without the mill, local job opportunities are suddenly much more limited. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high in the Shoalhaven for decades. While the skills of mill employees are (in theory) transferable, the practicality of putting them to use elsewhere in the Shoalhaven is questionable - manufacturing is in decline throughout the region. For most of the 75 mill households, the dearth of comparable jobs is a real and urgent challenge.
Other implications of the mill's closure are less tangible, but no less worrying. For the Shoalhaven, the death of the paper mill is another step down the road away from a once robust regional economy, towards a future of less secure, less innovative development. Retail jobs are better than no jobs, but when a region stops making things, it loses skills, culture and history. The loss of the Shoalhaven Paper Mill is not just another business failure.
The mill matters because it had become tightly woven into the social and economic life of the region. In the mid-1990s, the mill generated 25 per cent of all employment and economic activity in the Nowra-Bomaderry area. Further back, in the 1960s, the mill was the only game in town for most school leavers. Both my parents worked there, alongside my grandfather, who was on the mill's original staff back in 1956. For me - and for many other Shoalhaven families - this is personal.
But it's also political. The fate of the Shoalhaven Paper Mill matters because there, but for the grace of government, goes any industrial enterprise. Most economists and industry analysts will tell you that the paper mill was too small to survive, its equipment was too old, its operating costs too high. What they might neglect to mention is that the Shoalhaven Paper Mill was highly skilled and competitive in its niche area of security grade papers (and if you don't believe me, peer inside your passport and admire the craftsmanship). More than anything, the paper mill suffered from its position in a globalised economy, and in a policy environment that doles out industry assistance in ad hoc and inconsistent ways.
Over decades, the mill was passed from multinational owner to multinational owner, shrinking in significance and visibility each time. Its specialised skills suited small-scale production - but not the "bigger is better" mantra of modern manufacturing. At the same time, government support for Australian manufacturing was being wound back. The type of support provided by the Menzies government is now utterly disavowed by politicians eager to let "the market" shape regional development in Australia.
Governments still have the power, and the will, to support regional manufacturing - but the Shoalhaven Paper Mill was not one of the lucky few on the recipient list. Consider the jarring contrast with the Manildra ethanol plant in Bomaderry, which has flourished over the last 20 years. The two factories are separated by only a few hundred metres - and half a billion dollars, the amount that Manildra has gained from the federal government's ethanol grants program since 2002.
Is it fair that the paper mill was abandoned by government while another local manufacturer was embraced? No - but it reminds us that government policies can, and do, play a big role in the success or failure of local businesses.
If the Shoalhaven economy is to survive, the community - and especially its leaders - will need to resist lazy pronouncements from government that intervention is inefficient, and that market forces will act in the community's best interests. If the closure of the Shoalhaven Paper Mill is economically "rational", then economic rationalism doesn't seem to offer much hope for the local economy and the community it supports.
Amanda Walsh is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, writing about the impact of globalisation in the Shoalhaven region.