Last week, Verso announced that they would be idling their Duluth and Wisconsin Rapids mills indefinitely. The news comes as another blow to the already fragile economy of the Northland. Not only will 235 good-paying jobs be lost, but the impact of the idling will ripple through Northern Minnesota as truckers, loggers, and other industries that served the paper plant lose business. The shutdown will also directly impact Minnesota Power and the steam plant in Duluth.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall, or ream, in this case. The paper industry has been in decline for years with more people using technology to promote business, publish books, and send information, but the last few months have seen a dramatic decrease in paper use due to the pandemic – specifically, the type of paper Verso produced, graphic paper for newspaper advertising inserts, catalogs, and magazines. With many people shopping online, many major retailers, nationally (Target) and locally (Super One), have discontinued printing their weekly ad inserts.
Recently, Verso added Kraft paper production to its product line to make paper grocery bags among other products, and has been in the process of converting the mill to a recycling plant that could produce packaging materials like cardboard. With the increase in online shopping the packaging market has been growing and is expected to increase annually by 4% over the next 5 years. The multi-million-dollar conversion has been in the works since 2018 with the City of Duluth supporting the company in their efforts to secure a $2 million dollar grant from the State of Minnesota. The Duluth City Council also unanimously supported providing nearly $250K in a forgivable loan for the project.
While Verso hopes that market conditions change and they will be able to bring workers back, they are also considering selling the mill or closing it permanently. While local officials can’t do much to inspire companies to use graphic paper – they can put on their economic development hats and start searching for a company to use the mill, bring back employees, and support the secondary industries should Verso have to close. The City of Duluth, as well as St. Louis County Commissioners, need to prioritize supporting the mill while they figure out the next steps in preparing for the worst.
I’m reminded of a quote from the best-selling novel “Paper Towns”: “All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the future to stay warm.” Duluth has always seemed to take a one-dimensional approach to building the local economy with tourism. While it’s much more exciting and glamourous than a steam belching paper plant, the pandemic has proven that the future of Duluth must be multi-faceted. Well, Duluth has supported the paper mill in adapting to changing times, showing more love to all manufacturing industries right now, and always, will be key in a prosperous future for the region.