An economic tremor shook northeast Brainerd five years ago and threatened to level livelihoods.
But the widespread devastation expected when Potlatch announced it was closing the Brainerd mill after a century of papermaking was largely averted. That didn't diminish the stress faced by about 616 employees who found themselves out of jobs many expected to retire from. But for those who have studied the aftermath, there is one key word to describe people and places - resiliency.
Wayne Hartman worked in the coating department at Potlatch. He worked in the grocery business for about 20 years, and was with Rainbow Foods in Brainerd when it closed. By the early spring of 2001, Hartman had been working at Potlatch for five years. He planned to retire there. All that changed when the mill closed on March 18, 2001.
"It's hard to believe it's five years already," Hartman said. "It was stressful for everybody."
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
Hartman said the question for everyone was: "Where am I going to go from here?"
"I tried to be optimistic about it," Hartman said. "I tried to look at it as a new frontier - a new opportunity."
More than 400 Potlatch employees worked with Rural Minnesota CEP to develop a career plan, obtain education or training and search for jobs. Some returned to papermaking when new owners restarted the mill. Others looked to new careers or retired. Some moved away.
Don Hines started working at Potlatch when he was 25. His father worked there and retired from the job. Hines expected to follow suit. When the mill closed, Hines had been on the job 15 years. But he said the closing wasn't unexpected and the company provided fair warning. Two days after his last shift at Potlatch, Hines started working at Nor-son, where he is safety director.
"I guess I'm very fortunate that worked out for me," he said.
Hines said people who took advantage of planning and assistance were better off. Like other former employees, Hines said he misses the people he worked with during those years, and staying in touch after the job change is challenging. An annual summer picnic provides a chance for employees to get together.
Gerard Miller worked for Burlington Northern Railroad in Brainerd. After BN merged with the Santa Fe, staying with the railway meant moving to Wisconsin. Miller went to work for Potlatch instead. He was with the company for 13 years when it closed.
People who struggled the most were those who refused to believe the plant would close and were used to taking overtime shifts to make ends meet, Miller said.
"It wasn't the disaster that everyone thought it would be," Miller said. "Granted, most of us aren't making the same wage, but I think we are all learning to adjust to it."
Miller went to Central Lakes College to get a two-year degree in criminal justice. He worked for a couple of security companies before finding the company he liked most. Miller has been a field officer with Midwest Patrol for two years. He works in the Cuyuna Regional Medical Center emergency room and at the Brainerd Public Library.
"I thought I'm starting over,'" Miller said. "I wanted to do something totally different."
Hartman took advantage of retraining money, although it wasn't easy. For 10 months, he spent his weekdays attending a barber school in Fargo, N.D., returning home to Brainerd only on weekends. He spent a year as an apprentice, and three years ago, he opened his own business - Wayne's Barber Shop on Washington Street in northeast Brainerd.
"I'm glad I went into barbering," Hartman said. "I enjoy it. I think I found a good niche to fall into. You are taking a risk whenever you make any kind of a career change."
Working at Potlatch was a great job, Hartman said, adding his preference would have been to stay. Given the chance for a new start, Hartman remembered a relative who was a barber.
"I always kind of envied him; he seemed like he always enjoyed his job," Hartman said. "No matter where you go, people need haircuts. So I figured it's a pretty versatile operation."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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