Everyone in Bucksport knew that the huge paper mill at the edge of downtown was in financial trouble, said Frank Dunbar, a town councilor who has run a barber shop on Main Street for more than 50 years. That the Verso Paper Corp. mill would shut down some day was considered inevitable.

“Now that day is arriving, and we are still not ready for it,” he said. “We’ve been living in its shadow all these years.”

This town of about 5,000 people is just starting to come to grips with the reality that the mill, its largest employer and taxpayer, is scheduled to close for good on Dec. 1, putting about 500 people out of work. In addition, the shutdown will affect the companies that provide the mill with services and supplies, as well as the truckers who haul tree-length logs to the mill, and the loggers who harvest those trees from woodlots scattered across the region.

The impact will resonate throughout the economy, said the Rev. Peter Remick, minister at the area’s three Methodist churches.

“When you see a change like this, it’s the death of the community in a lot of ways,” he said. “A lot of people have grown up with the mill and don’t know anything but the mill.”

Workers and town officials who attended a companywide meeting Wednesday said they expected Verso’s management team to announce a merger with another company, or perhaps explain that one of the paper machines was being shut down. The news that the mill was closing caught everyone off guard, said Al George, 60, a mill worker from Swanville.

“We saw it coming, but didn’t think it was going to be so bad,” he said.

SIGNS WERE THERE, BUT STILL A SHOCK

“It was just shock. Everybody was just silent,” said Emory Deabay, a blower operator at the mill and president of the Local 1188 United Steelworkers Union.

Chad Cote, 42, was attending a prayer meeting Wednesday evening in Ellsworth when he was approached by the pastor’s wife. That’s how he got the news. She was weeping and told him how sorry she felt.

John Freeman, 62, a welder from Alton, said his boss called him at home Wednesday afternoon.

“I was in total shock,” he said.

Verso should have been working with state and town officials to find ways to keep the mill open rather than deciding behind closed doors to close it, said Thomas Gaffney, a psychologist in town since 1983 and president of the Bucksport Bay Healthy Communities Coalition.

“They should not have shocked everyone the way they did,” he said.

Residents here are still adjusting to the closure of Rosen’s department store 1½ years ago that perhaps foreshadowed the mill’s fate.

The landmark retailer opened on Main Street 85 years ago – about the same time Verso’s forebear, the Maine Seaboard Paper Co., bought a tannery and converted it into a paper mill. By the 1970s the mill employed about 1,200 people, many of whom were Rosen’s customers.

In recent years, Rosen’s saw its business decline because of competition from big-box stores in Bangor and Ellsworth, said Kim Rosen, who owned the store with her husband, Richard Rosen, both former lawmakers. Likewise, the mill’s coated-paper products suffered from larger competition and a declining demand for paper as people turn to online publications.

People in Bucksport hate change, said Rosen, and that includes a new bridge – seen as too modern and extravagant – built a few years ago over the Penobscot River.

But the mill shutdown will be the hardest change the town’s ever experienced, she said. “We are devastated.”

FINDING BRIGHT SPOTS AMID GLOOM

Officials who gathered at the municipal office Thursday morning seemed as shell-shocked as everyone else. Mayor David Keene, however, noted that the town is not as dependent on the mill as it used to be. The mill once paid three-quarters of the town’s taxes but now pays about 44 percent, he said.

The town’s median household income of $50,708 in 2012 is slightly higher than the state’s median of $48,219, according to U.S. Census data. And the percentage of residents living under the federal poverty level is 17 percent, versus the state average of 19.6 percent.

Town officials have been working hard to develop a 20-acre industrial park on Route 46, and recently landed a new tenant, Central Maine Cold Storage, which uses new technology to cook and freeze whole lobsters.

Also in its favor, Bucksport is not as isolated as Millinocket, a Penobscot County town that has struggled since 2008 to reinvent itself after its mill closed. Bucksport is about 18 miles from Belfast, Bangor, Blue Hill, Castine and Ellsworth.

To promote Bucksport as a hub of culture and employment, a town economic development committee came up with a new slogan, “Bucksport: Center of the Known Universe.”

Some business owners say the mill’s closure may give the town a chance to redefine itself and attract new industry and become more diversified.

“This may very well be a great opportunity,” said Andy Locher, owner of BookStacks, a book store on Main Street.

“You can’t call Bucksport a mill town,” he said. “It’s not anymore.”