After a day of public tours Thursday, the former Wausau Paper mill in northeast Brainerd was formally reintroduced to the people of Brainerd as the Brainerd Industrial Center.
About a hundred or more attendees didn't do much to fill up the cavernous facility that BIC CEO Mike Higgins hopes to populate with new business. However empty it may be, it's still a vast improvement over the crowd floor of factory equipment that Higgins took over.
"The world changes, it changes every day," he said. "We can sell the assets, clean it up a little bit more, and we can do something different. That's my mission here."
Paper production in northeast Brainerd began as the Northwest Paper Co. in the first years of the 20th century, but ended for good at the Wausau Mill in April 2013. The BIC idea came about when Higgins decided to save the building from demolition. It would be a waste of resources to simply tear down a building that has stood for a hundred years, he said.
Higgins said he's made a point of being open with the community about the redevelopment process.
"I've been very transparent with what I've been doing here," he said. "Part of that transparency was this event."
The Army veteran and third-generation business owner grew up in a family where a strong work ethic was valued. The event had a fittingly patriotic atmosphere, with a veterans color guard posting the American flag and holding a salute as the large audience sang the national anthem. The BIC logo, with another American flag in its background, towered over Higgins as it was projected onto a massive screen near the podium.
"I want to make America better," he said. "Part of making America better to me, and making Brainerd better to me, is cleaning this building up, repurposing it, getting some new life and some new jobs here."
About 120,000 square-feet of the building is ready to lease.
The No. 6 paper machine in the old mill was built by Beloit in 1958 and in 2000 it produced fine grades of on-machine coated paper and coating base stock. A rebuild of the machine was completed in 1995. Average production was 283 tons per day. The paper machine was later renumbered by Wausau to No. 7. Tour groups got to take a look at No. 7 earlier Thursday before the last paper machine is removed from the facility.
David Jackson, now of Winsted, worked 36 years at the mill, and before he retired in 2001 he was a coating machine operator. It was a bittersweet feeling as he recalled what the place was like when the factory floor was alive with equipment and workers.
He described the mill employees as "an extended family." When the mill closed, it was a similar feeling to mourning a death.
"It was really a solemn moment," he said. "To this day, I still have dreams about (the mill)."
However, the bond he made with his coworkers won't disappear.
"The friendships you make, they never go away," he said. "The camaraderie... something that's lacking in the world we live in today."