As the closing of the Potlatch mill nears, community leaders are grappling with unknowns. Wednesday a strategy group met to form specific action plans.
About 50 people, including members from Potlatch's transition team and the community strategy group, met for three hours Wednesday morning at Cragun's Resort near Brainerd. The goal was to identify strategies in three major areas, establish small group leadership and set up future meetings if needed. After break-out sessions on employee opportunities, economic development and the impact on the community, Potlatch strategy meeting participants came up with several plans and areas of continuing effort.
Plans that worked in St. Cloud for Fingerhut's closing and in Hoyt Lakes in response to LTV's closing also were suggested. Group participants agreed an opportunity fair or resources fair should be established. A $2 million retraining grant proposal was submitted to the state Friday that could include assistance for two-year college degrees.
Tom Brotski, Potlatch plant transition manager, said the collaboration of effort has been important to people at the mill. Employees signed a severance package Tuesday. Potlatch determined 170 of its employees are within five years of retirement and 98 are eligible for benefits now.
A community meeting to discuss information gathered in response to the impending closure of Potlatch's Brainerd mill is set from 7 to 9 p.m. May 7 at Tornstrom Auditorium, Washington Middle School, Brainerd.
Brotski said the mill's closing date, anticipated in May, is a moving target. He said the lack of a final work day is frustrating for employees, but depends on decisions between coated printing papers division buyer Sappi Limited and Potlatch.
"As soon as we can nail it down we will do that," Brotski said.
Beyond that Brotski said all efforts are being focused on finding a buyer for the mill.
After group sessions met, people returned to the general session to summarize action plans. Lisa Paxton, Brainerd Lakes Area Chambers of Commerce chief executive officer and group facilitator, said the groups came up with a lot of great ideas.
The economic development group suggested looking into state economic development grants to hire help to put all the strategy team's information together and pursue items.
Ideas included getting risk capital to attract technology companies, detailed skills assessments for Potlatch employees, grants to help existing businesses expand so they can hire more workers and the review results from Potlatch's consultant, Jaakko Poyry. The Initiative Foundation offered to fast-track a healthy communities study to assist Brainerd in planning. Another plan is to analyze other paper mills that have closed in the past year or so.
The employee opportunity small group came up with several action plans, including the need to have a dedicated place for employees to meet and get information from multiple agencies and sources after the mill closes. The union is expected to play a significant role there. And a Web site is being put together to allow employees to keep in touch in the future.
A career exploration day is set at the mill with college representatives, Minnesota Department of Trade and Economic Development officials and Business and Industry Center members. A job fair was another plan that may be in place by June. Help also is being set up for the expected 10 percent or 60 workers who decide to open their own businesses.
Other areas of interest included Potlatch's acreage, roughly 75 acres, across the river from the mill near Riverside Drive. And there was a ripple question regarding how area vendors will be affected by the mill closing.
For many of the questions, the answers remain elusive. Among the unknowns are what the mill's closing will mean for the community in the next year. Major questions revolve around the complex human response to 616 job losses. How many families may leave the community? How will resources get to those who need help but may not ask for it? How are efforts best combined to attract a mill buyer?
Some Potlatch managers are expected to leave the community, workers with particular skills from pipefitters to electricians are expected to have job offers, others may hunker down for several months before making final plans.
"That is the unknown," Warren Williams said in a small group session.
In the short term, prospects are for reduced spending as Potlatch employees look at bills from a $50,000 a year lifestyle that may be replaced by a reduced earning potential closer to $30,000 per year. Ripple effects are expected. The housing market could change to a buyer's advantage if sales prices fall as more houses enter the sale listings. Lending institutions, particularly ones with a high percentage of Potlatch employee loans or mortgages, may see initial fallout if any bankruptcies come to pass.
Weekly meetings were set between the strategy team and Potlatch's transition team since the mill closing was announced March 18. Information has been gathered regarding plans to find a buyer for the mill, employee assistance options and the overall effect on the community. Wednesday representatives from Brainerd, Baxter and Crow Wing County attended the session.
"The community has really stepped up," Brotski said. He noted contributions, including Brainerd Police Chief John Bolduc who helped with crisis intervention information.
Karl Samp, community impact group facilitator, said studies have shown whether people stay or leave a community depends more on whether they feel connected to the people instead of wages.
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