A northern Wisconsin paper mill that shut down last year and struggled to find a buyer is back in operation and calling back workers.
It's been a bumpy year and a half for the Park Falls paper mill that operated for decades as Flambeau River Papers.
In May 2019, its company went into receivership, which is similar to bankruptcy, and its owner put it up for sale. The next month, the mill abruptly closed, laying off about 180 workers. But in July 2019 it reached a deal that allowed it to call many of those workers back and resume production. That lasted until the fall, when an effort to find a buyer for the mill fell through. The mill was idle all winter, and most of this year.
"The perception was it was done last November," said Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick. "It was going to get scrapped. That was what we all assumed. We were preparing for that internally at the city."
That changed when an entrepreneur from New Jersey, Yong Liu, bought the mill. The new company, Park Falls Industrial Management, will operate the mill under the name Park Falls Pulp and Paper.
Bablick said 51 workers have been called back to the mill, as one of the mill's three massive paper-making machines is back online. When all three are operating, the number of jobs could triple as well.
Bablick and Liu, along with state Sen. Janet Bewley and others, celebrated the reopening with a ribbon-cutting.
Outagamie County Executive Thomas Nelson, who was on hand for the ceremony, said the paper industry in the Northwoods and in the Fox Valley where he lives are interconnected.
The opening of Park Falls Pulp and Paper, Nelson said, "is great news for Park Falls, it's great for the Northwoods, and it's great for the paper industry across the state."
Nelson said legal advocacy by the United Steelworkers union helped to ensure that the eventual buyer of the mill would commit to operating it as a mill, rather than selling its equipment and materials for scrap.
The city of Park Falls also made a $1 million loan in May to help the company survive the pandemic effects and stay on track to reopen as a mill. Bablick called the loan a "worthwhile risk" for the city.
Right now, the mill is producing wet lap, a pulp product that it sells to other mills, which turn it into paper products. But it also sells the byproducts of its industrial processes. It's one of the few mills in North America to use a sulfite process on its pulp, and that process creates a byproduct called xylitol. Xylitol is an artificial sweetener.
"Most sugar-free chewing gum has xylitol, and there's a very good chance the Park Falls mill was involved with that xylitol," Bablick said.
The mill also sells the byproduct lignin, which is used in the making of concrete. Bablick said all of these products are crucial to its financial success.
Bablick said some of the workers who were laid off from the mill last year have left the region, and finding workers in the Northwoods city of about 2,200 people is one challenge the mill may face. But in general, he said, the workers who had stayed at Flambeau River Papers through its financial difficulties were paper-industry veterans with decades of experience. Those are the workers who have agreed to come back to Park Falls Pulp and Paper.
"People who have come back probably on average have 20 years, 30 years experience at the mill," Bablick said. "I give those men and women an awful lot of credit. Most of them had found other employment. But they're coming back and trying to make a go of it — and it will go, as long as we get the workforce."