by Dennis Dalman
After working for 38 years at the Verso paper mill, Dennis Molitor feels suddenly like an orphan.
The end of Verso is, to Molitor, akin to losing both parents at once.
“There’s a psychological impact,” he said. “All of a sudden we have no parents. Verso was such a landmark. It’s where we came from. It’s a gaping wound that will take a long, long time to heal.
What most disheartens Molitor is the nagging feeling that if the plant had been sold earlier, before the explosion, maybe things would be far brighter now. But the explosion and the damage it cause made the plant virtually impossible to use now or in the near future for any kind of paper-making, Molitor said.
Even as a retiree, Molitor is devastated by what happened. He was always seeing his fellow employees in the months since he retired. He intended to go to every Christmas party or reunion event Verso would ever host.
Molitor knows every nook and cranny of the factory, and he has worked virtually every job in the plant.
Molitor, who retired last year, has worked in maintenance, the craft shop, as a facilitator, as a safety officer, as a technical trouble-shooter — to name just some.
“I’ve walked in a lot of people’s shoes there,” he said.
When he heard the news of the permanent shut-down at the plant, he was stunned.
“My heart sinks when I think about it,” Molitor said. “I haven’t been sleeping well.”
Molitor heard about the May 28 explosion while he was camping by Gull Lake with his wife and some friends. He learned of it through a phone text message sent to him by Sartell City Council member Sandra Cordie.
On the way back home, while on the Rice bridge, Molitor saw black smoke in the air. He shuddered with dread, knowing it must be bad and worrying that workers may have lost their lives.
Molitor said most people have no idea of the economic impact Verso brought to Sartell — not just wages and taxes, but all the vendors who did business with the plant. There were wood supplies, chemical suppliers, railroad switch people and rail deliveries of clay and cornstarch used in the making of paper. Some vendors, in fact, were on the premises full-time, such as the half dozen people who did so many types of testing.
Throughout the years, the paper mill — under various names — invested somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a billion dollars in improvements and expansions. A 1981 expansion alone cost $300 million, Molitor noted.
“If someone bought Verso for paper-making, it would cost probably $70 million or more to fix it,” he said.
In the meantime, Molitor’s deepest hope is that the dislocated workers find new, good jobs.