That gust of wind you just felt was a collective breath by people living in Rhinelander and Mosinee, Wisconsin when news broke of Wausau Papers successfully find a buyer for the two Wisconsin paper mills just listed.
The sale is not finalized, however. There a number of things such as ratifying a new United Steelworkers collective bargaining contract and final approval from the company’s board.
Regardless, it lays a foundation of hope that wasn’t there before as explained by Amanda Seitz, writing in the Wausau Daily Herald:
Whether they were sipping beers at the bar or getting a hair cut at the Main Street barber shop, it seemed everyone in Mosinee was asking the same question for months: Who, if anyone, will buy our paper mill?
Since Wausau Paper announced in January its plan to sell the Mosinee mill, Dan Rheinschmidt, one of the hundreds of mill workers employed at the facility, heard that question more times than he can recall.
“Everybody wondered, ‘If it does close, what would happen here?’” Rheinschmidt, a 53-year-old Mosinee resident, said of his city.
The mill — and its uncertain future — has been the talk of a city, where just steps from its downtown white smoke billows daily from smokestacks and seeps its sometimes rotten stench into the air. It’s a city where landmarks are named after the plant and where people were anxious to know if any company would keep alive the mill, which has welcomed residents and visitors to Mosinee for more than a century.
By Thursday, three months after Wausau Paper announced it would put its mill up for sale, the people living in Mosinee finally got the answer they longed to hear. A private firm, which local leaders say has a history of turning troubled companies into successful ones, signed a nonbinding letter of intent to buy Mosinee and Rhinelander mills and the specialty paper arm of the company for $130 million, Wausau Paper officials announced earlier this week.
The news is a relief for the roughly 4,000 people residing in Mosinee, where nearly everyone knows a neighbor or family member who relies on the mill to make a living.
Tanya Grupe, 49, had fears that, after Wausau Paper shut down its Brokaw mill last year, the Mosinee mill was doomed to a similar fate. During the past few months, her friends who worked at the mill started looking for other jobs, just in case. The high school- and college-aged children of mill workers started to rethink the plan they had formulated to follow their parent’s path and one day take a job at the mill, she said.
“There was a lot of concern,” Grupe said of the time when Wausau Paper announced it would sell the Mosinee mill. “A lot of families, their kids plan on working (at Wausau Paper). They’re good paying jobs.”
Now, however, workers and residents have reason to be positive about the future of Wausau Paper and its buyer, said David Eckmann, the director for Marathon Economic Development Corp. The company, KPS, which plans to buy the central Wisconsin mills and fold them and the specialty paper business into a new company, has a history of keeping the mills it buys operating, Eckmann said. He added that New York-based KPS has 85 manufacturing investments around the world.
“Looking at the history of the firm, they’ve worked strongly in the paper industry,” Eckmann said. “Overall, just doing some reading and talking to people, (the proposed sale) looks like very positive, based on other alternatives that could have happened.”
Rheinschmidt, who said he felt confident that the Mosinee facility eventually would find buyer, said he worried about some of those alternatives, especially the future of his city if the mill were to close its doors.
“I think the town would die, without the (mill),” he said.
Keeping well-paying jobs in town is important for local business owners, such as Al Javoroski, who owns the downtown bowling alley named after the mill, Paper City Lanes. He estimates half of his customers either work at the mill or have a family member who is employed at the mill.
“It’s important to have good paying jobs in town,” Javoroski said. “The mill helps build the culture of this community.”
Unfortunately, the third mill that Wausau put up for sale in Brainerd, Minnesota, wasn’t included in this transaction.