by Dennis Dalman
Two months ago, so many people expressed grief about the death of Verso mill worker Jon Maus of Albany, who was killed in the Memorial Day explosion at that plant. And now, there is more grief — grief about the permanent closing of Verso and grief for its 259 workers who find themselves without jobs.
That is the way Sartell Mayor Joe Perske expressed his and others’ crushing disappointment about the fate of the Verso plant after officials announced last week it would shut down after 106 years in business.
“The last three days have been tough,” Perske said in an Aug. 4 interview with the Newsleader.
At a July 31 all-cities meeting in St. Cloud, Perske thanked all the area cities for being so helpful and supportive in the wake of the Verso explosion and fire. Two days later, Thursday, Perske, Rep. Tim O’Driscoll and Sen. Michelle Fischbach prepared to meet Verso Chief Executive Officer David Paterson and Gov. Mark Dayton in Dayton’s St. Paul Capitol office. Perske and the legislators were eager to discuss strategies for keeping Verso open in preparation for a special legislative session scheduled for late August.
At the governor’s office, Perkse was stunned when he immediately learned, on entering Dayton’s office at 2:30 p.m., that Verso officials had made the decision to shut down the Verso mill permanently.
Ninety minutes later, at Sartell City Hall, Verso management announced the decision at a press conference.
Like many others, Perske is steel reeling from the news.
“We grieved the loss of life (Jon Maus), and now we are grieving a loss of jobs,” Perske said.
Perske grew up in Sauk Rapids, but he has lived in Sartell for several decades, taught and coached in the school system and, with wife Janet, raised his three daughters in Sartell. Perske said “the mill” has long been a vital part of Sartell and the entire region, that it supplied good jobs for generations of people and that it was a huge contributor to the economic vitality not just of Sartell but of the greater St. Cloud area and beyond.
The plant, he said, was so important to “generation after generation” of people, providing quality jobs for quality workers for so many Sartell residents.
Perske said he is convinced that Verso company officials, Dayton and legislators have done everything in their power to examine every option for keep Verso open, but that it just was not feasible because of the massive amount of damage to the plant and the troublesome outlook of the international market for the type of paper the plant produced.
Perske compared the situation to horseshoes.
“About 150 years ago there was a big market for horseshoes,” he said. “There’s still a market for horseshoes, but it’s not nearly what it used to be. Same with glossy (Verso) paper. It’s not what it was even 20 years ago. We have to deal with that reality today.”
And the reality, Perske said, is that 259 workers now need jobs. Job training and help in finding jobs, he said, will be vital. Another reality that must be dealt with is the effort to find another business or industrial use for the Verso site and facility. There are several pluses that might help attract some industry — namely water supply, city hook-ups in place, a rail line and proximity to Hwy. 10 and Hwy. 15.
Perske said he is confident the governor, legislators, city staff, employment experts and others will come together to make things better. Those players include the Workforce Center, the Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. and the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
In addition, the function of a current task force now has a new focus. After the explosion, the task force was formed to explore the needs of Verso that could help it stay in business. Now, the focus will be on trying to find another use for that site, one that could bring jobs to Sartell residents. At this point, the task-force members include Perske, Sartell City Administrator Patti Gartland, Sartell Planner and Developer Anita Rasmussen, Sartell City Financial Director Mary Degiovanni, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, Rep. Tim O’Driscoll, Verso Plant Manager Matt Archambeau, Greater St. Cloud Development Corp. Director John Kramer and former legislators Bernie Omann and Dave Gruenes.