Power Plant Shutdown In Kewaunee Leaves Community In Grief

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The largest employer in Kewaunee County is beginning the process of shutting down; the Kewaunee Power Station stops producing electricity today.

Six hundred and fifty people work at the nuclear plant. When asked about the closure and impending layoffs, people in the rural area around the power station describe something akin to the stages of grief.

Jennifer Brown is the executive director of the Kewaunee County Economic Development Corporation.

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“There’s definitely some of the community that’s definitely at the acceptance stage. Absolutely I think that’s there. I think there’s still a lot of grieving going on. And I think you’ll see some tinges of anger. But I think there’s a lot more acceptance happening in the community.”

Wisconsin workers have dealt with mass layoffs before, and they probably will again. But Brown says when areas like Kewaunee and Manitowoc Counties are faced with the loss of hundreds of jobs, it has a deeper impact than similar closures in big cities.

“This is a huge impact. These people have been in the employ of Dominion and WPS before that for 20-25 years. So this has been their life work. They don’t want to find employment in a different community. They want to maintain their lives in the Kewaunee County community.”

An economic impact study by the University of Wisconsin Extension looked at the closure’s effect on Kewaunee, Manitowoc, and Brown Counties, the three areas where most workers live.

The median salary at the plant is $50,000. Brown says it generates $72 million a year in pay and the plant’s owner, Dominion, pays $6.1 million per year in state and local taxes. Dominion owns 900 acres of land, including two miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.

Then there’s the “multiplier effect.”

“We also know that the plant is generating over $600 million in economic activity-so industrial sales-annually. Some of the industries we’re talking about in terms of sales are the service sector, construction, [and] agriculture. Obviously the exit of those revenues will have a significant impact-that loss will have a significant impact.”

Two case workers with the Job Center of Wisconsin have set up shop at the plant. They’re helping soon-to-be-displaced workers hone their interviewing and resume skills, and in some cases to decide on a career change.

For case worker Jill Grohusky, the situation hits close to home.

“My husband works here, so I have a unique standpoint. We went through those stages of grief. Obviously shock was the first one. It wasn’t something that was necessarily anticipated. At this point in time over the months it’s become more acceptance – willingness to move on.”

Where and how to move on is the big question. Grohusky’s coworker, Debbie Charney, expects some families will uproot. But she says many want to keep their families in northeastern Wisconsin.

Grohusky says there is no “average” worker at Kewaunee. She says they are men, women, old, young. And the jobs run the gamut from highly trained technicians to office workers to warehousers and maintenance.

“I’ve talked to people with masters degrees we go down to high school diplomas. So it’s a big variety of education levels but their skill sets are all very positive. They have a lot of skills because they do a lot of in house training.”

The first and largest round of layoffs comes at the end of the month with more to follow through the summer. Though there’s no telling when all the affected workers will have made their way through denial, anger, bargaining and depression…all the way to acceptance.

Correction: The original version of this story said the name of one of the job center case workers was Jill Gorhusky. The case worker’s name is actually Jill Grohusky.

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