There was a sinking feeling at Sartell City Hall on the afternoon of Aug. 2.
It was eerily silent, and everyone held their breath just before the long-anticipated announcement came, but the announcement certainly was not one that anyone wanted to hear. Verso Paper Co. Vice President Lyle Fellows announced the Verso plant in Sartell will be closed forever.
It was a traumatic moment. One could almost “hear” memories and questions spooling in the minds of those present. Some who were hearing the news had worked there for many years; others know many people who worked there in good-paying jobs; and still others have long known the baby-blue Verso plant as an important Sartell landmark, its tall condenser tower spouting a blazing-white stream of condensation, like clouds.
It is still hard to believe that after 106 years of doing business, that venerable old paper mill will no longer function. The May 28 explosion that killed Jon Maus of Albany and injured four others was the blow that sealed the company’s fate. Despite generous offers of help locally and from the state, the company decided it would be financially unfeasible to make the massive repairs and start again. Even with financial help from the state, that option just would not have panned out. It’s all too understandable – a sad ending, to be sure, but understandable.
It’s such a shame in so many ways. It’s a shame that the paper mill, such a bedrock of Sartell, is now just an empty ghost building. It’s a shame that Sartell’s largest taxpayer is no more. And it’s a shame that 259 employees now find themselves without jobs in an economy in which jobs are hard to find.
Three generations of people have worked at the Watab Paper Co., the St. Regis Paper Mill, Champion and Verso – all different names for the same mill. Millions – if no billions – of tons of quality paper rolled from its giant paper-making machines. The mill not only provided so many good-paying jobs for local people, but it helped support jobs in other industries dependent on its paper and its needs. An estimated 800 jobs throughout Minnesota may be in jeopardy because of Verso’s closing.
Patti Gartland, Sartell city administrator, said it best. She said that Verso was part of the heart and soul of Sartell, that it was a part of the city’s cultural fabric and that its closing brings forth feelings akin to mourning and grief.
Now there is an effort underway to try to find some other kind of industry that would be able to retrofit the Verso facility for some other use. That’s not going to be easy, especially not in today’s less-than-booming business climate. But we’ve got to believe something is bound to turn up, sooner or later.
In the meantime and most immediately, our hearts to out to the workers who lost jobs and to their families who must be under intense pressure and anxiety. We should all reach out to them and give them the utmost encouragement, moral support – and hopefully – jobs.