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Wausau Paper site sold, to be repurposed into industrial center

October 2002 file photo of the Brainerd paper mill property when it was owned and operated by Potlatch. Brainerd Dispatch file photo.1 / 2
In the immediate future, a new sign will be erected naming "Brainerd Industrial Center" and the parking lot and lawn will be tended to. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 2

The Wausau Paper Mill site has a new owner, and there are plans to keep the site intact and operating on a new platform — an industrial center.

The new name will be the Brainerd Industrial Center (BIC).

Owner Mike Higgins made the announcement Monday, though he closed on the sale for the site last Thursday.

There will be very little demolition at the site, just a couple of buildings for aesthetic reasons, Higgins said.

The buildings will eventually be leased out to tenants for light industrial and commercial uses.

No tenants have been officially signed on, but there are some "definite maybes," Higgins said.

Higgins, who is from Mount Pleasant, Mich., said he was unable to release the buying price.

He appeared at a Brainerd City Council meeting Monday to speak to his plans for the site.

It was 45 days ago that Higgins found out about the possibility of buying the site, and he came to Brainerd a few days later to check it out.

"Thirty-two days later, we closed," he said.

Wausau Paper closed its production doors in April, citing an exit from the print business and economic weakness as key factors in the decision.

The news of Higgins buying the facility comes after more than a year and a half of other potential buyers and demolition companies wanting to come in.

The first promising buyer was Liberty Paper Company in October. The company backed out soon after, citing "potential environmental liability of the site" and the costs of running the facility.

The second promising buyer was with Michigan-based company Renu Recycling.

A demolition permit was approved last May for Renu to tear down the buildings, but tight restrictions on the permit stopped the company from moving forward with the plans.

The future of the site was at a standstill until late last week when Higgins closed on the sale, surprising many city officials who have been involved with the process of repurposing Wausau since the beginning.

Higgins owns several businesses in Mount Pleasant. The first is Higgins and Associates, which is two scrap metal yards and lift crane service. A second business is a T-shirt design and printing shop.

About four years ago his company was hired to tear out equipment at a former paper mill site, which was later turned into lease spacing for tenants.

"It was a really good project that really turned the building around," he said.

He added, "It's taking something that had been dead and turning it into something that the town and people could use."

Higgins knew that he wanted to do the same.

Enter Wausau.

After 30 minutes of walking around in the site for the first time, Higgins said it would be a shame to tear it down.

"It's too nice, too clean," he said.

"We really think it will make a neat industrial center," he said.

Plans are changing daily as to the future of the site, he said.

In the immediate future, a new sign will be erected naming "Brainerd Industrial Center" and the parking lot and lawn will be tended to, he said.

Local residents will be hired to help with the repurposing process.

He'll work with the Brainerd Lakes Area Economic Development Corporation to find and recruit tenants for the space.

City Council member Mary Koep said she hopes Higgins will be "transparent and open to the public" with the changes happening on site.

Higgins agreed. "I think we can work together and hopefully get something going with this property," he said.

Mayor James Wallin added, "We're extremely happy to have you guys here. This community has been blessed in many ways and it is continueing to be blessed."

Higgins will only buy the buildings and land that they sit on. The city of Brainerd bought the hydrodam recently.

Jessie Perrine
Jessie covers the Brainerd City Council and the Brainerd School Board. Born and raised in southern Minnesota, Jessie attended Winona State University, where she majored in journalism with a minor in women and gender studies. She worked at the Winona Daily News, Tomah Journal and the La Crosse Tribune before starting at the Dispatch in 2012.
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