Sartell looks to future after Verso plant closesby Conrad Wilson, Minnesota Public Radio
SARTELL, Minn. — Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar head to Sartell Friday following Verso Paper's decision to close its mill in the central Minneosta city.
The mill was heavily damaged on Memorial Day by an explosion and fire that killed one person and injured four others. Company officials announced Thursday that the damage was too severe to justify rebuilding the mill.
Verso's decision will cost 259 workers their jobs, and could reduce the revenue from the city's biggest source of taxes.
Gov. Dayton pushed hard to convince Verso to get the mill back up and running. Dayton pledged the state's support while fire crews were still working to put out the blaze -- and he encouraged the company to seek assistance in an upcoming special legislative session to provide aid to flood-damaged areas of northeast Minnesota.
But Thursday, Lyle Fellows, a senior vice president at Verso, announced plans to close the mill permanently.
"It's based on the length of time it would take to rebuild the facility and the infrastructures inside, and all the systems that were destroyed in the Memorial Day fire and explosion," Fellows said.
Fellows said it was neither an easy decision, nor one the Memphis-based company took lightly.
These are already tough times for the paper industry, and Fellows said the mill hadn't been competitive for a number of years. Last December, the company laid off 175 workers and shut down two of the mill's three papermaking machines.
"Our assessment indicates that it's impossible for the mill to achieve a competitive position in today's marketplace after a setback of this magnitude and duration," he said.
Set on the banks of the Mississippi River, the 106-year-old mill is a year older than the town itself. The plant provided jobs to generations of area residents and was an integral part of the community.
Lyle Fleck is president of Local 274, the Steelworkers Union. He worked at the mill for 31 years. Fleck said the news hit hard.
"Everything fell out. OK? Your stomach turns. That happens," he said.
Still, Fleck said he believes the company and the union did everything they could to get the mill reopened.
"These were good, great-paying jobs. Union-paying jobs," said Fleck. "When you lose your jobs no matter what, there's going to be changes. But I do know that we tried our hardest to keep this mill running."
For the city itself, $185,000 in annual tax payments is at stake. Company officials say they're committed to paying what they owe in the future.
Sartell City Administrator Patti Gartland said it's unclear what will happen once the property value of the shuttered mill is reassessed.
"When they go out of operation, will that affect their valuation? That will be determined by the county assessor," Gartland said. "And that valuation, of course, will impact ultimately how much they pay in taxes."
Gartland called the mill's closure a "tragedy" and said the connections between the company and the town ran deep. Verso provided charitable donations throughout the community.
Despite her disappointment, Gartland clearly believes the decision won't be a total loss for the city.
"We want to inventory what are the assets they have there. Obviously they have a dam and a hydro facility there and they've got a power supply there," she said. "We have to refocus our energies and attention now and work towards what's the new future for that site."
Gov. Dayton and the company have agreed to put together a task force to look at future options for the site.