After Wausau closes
Brainerd’s Wausau Paper plant, scheduled to shut down next month, was the focus of meetings Friday that drew lawmakers, community leaders, plant employees and managers.
Discussions at Brainerd City Hall dealt with finding a buyer for the plant as well as publicizing assistance programs that are available to displaced workers.
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., who organized the meeting, pointed to factors that could contribute to finding a new owner for the plant. They included a state-of-the-art facility; a talented work force; cooperation between management and the union; and community support.
The recently elected congressman said communities that thrive usually owe it to one individual or a group of individuals that work to make their city successful.
“We’ve got some people that have always stepped up,” Nolan said of the Brainerd area.
Nolan said the U.S. has to get smarter in terms of its tax and trade policies so U.S. plants can compete with foreign plants that receive huge government subsidies.
Mark Swenson, vice president of operations with Wausau Paper, said he would take the messages of community support to the company’s chief executive officer as they tried to find a good buyer.
Brainerd City Council President Bonnie Cumberland noted the ramifications of the plant’s closing on the city, which she said has seen a 20 percent reduction in city staff in the last three years.
An example of the employment situation, she said, was demonstrated by the 130 applications the city received when it recently listed an opening in the street and sewer department.
Sue Hilgart of the Minnesota Workforce Center described the Wausau jobs — some of which paid about $20 an hour — as life-changing jobs that could be difficult to replace for folks who formerly had been earning considerably less.
In a second meeting, after Wausau officials and employees left, state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, urged stakeholders to not be tied to the concept of a plant that would make paper.
“Maybe it needs to be something different,” she said. “Maybe we should broaden our vision. Let’s not have this narrow vision.”
Turning their attention to assistance for laid-off workers, Anthony Alongi, director of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s (DEED’S) Dislocated Worker and Trade Adjustment Assistance program, urged Wausau workers to enroll in state programs by Memorial Day.
“Get them to the WorkForce Center,” he said.
There are various deadlines that apply to receiving assistance but if all the affected workers were enrolled by Memorial Day it would benefit everyone.
Jim Herman, who works with DEED’s Unemployment Insurance program, also urged workers to “take action immediately.”
Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter, noted that he was told by Brainerd area Coca-Cola managers that firm has had open positions for months. He also called attention to his Greater Minnesota Job Training Credit bill (House File 292).
Nolan said after the meetings he was cautiously optimistic that a new buyer could be found for the northeast Brainerd paper plant.
In February, Wausau Paper officials announced they would cease production in April at the plant that employed about 130 workers. Wausau Paper had decided to divest itself of the technical specialty paper business to focus on its tissue business.
In February, Perry Grueber, director of investor relations for Wausau, said the company wasn’t saying it wouldn’t try to sell the mill but Wausau Paper thought the mills in Wisconsin would be more attractive to the market.
About two years ago Wausau Paper invested $27 million to convert the Brainerd mill to technical specialty grades.
Among those attending either one or two meetings that was conducted Friday were Lisa Paxton, CEO of the Brainerd Lakes Chamber; Sheila Haverkamp, Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corp. executive director; Rep. Joe Radinovich, DFL-Crosby, Brainerd Mayor James Wallin; Craig Nathan, Rural Minnesota CEP operations manager; Greg Bergman, Central Lakes College Small Business Development Center regional director; Jerry Fallos from the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; and Lisa Fobbe from the office of Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.