WISCONSIN RAPIDS (From news reports) -- After months of exploring possibilities, Verso Corp. announced Wednesday it would slow down its effort to find a buyer for the Wisconsin Rapids mill.
David Sams, Verso's vice president of environmental health, safety and sustainability, told members of the Wisconsin Rapids Together Task Force Wednesday morning that, the economic environment and the continued COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult to find a buyer.
Sams said it has become apparent that a sale in the near future will be "impossible."
State Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa said that Verso's announcement was a shock to task force members who are trying to find ways to help the community cope with the mill's shutdown and get the more than 800 workers who have lost their jobs back to work.
Krug, a member of the task force, said he spoke with Verso's interim CEO, Randy Nebel, last week and Nebel gave no inkling there would be a delay or pause in work to sell the mill.
"They're playing games and acting in bad faith at this point," he said.
Verso announced in June it would indefinitely stop production at its paper mills in Wisconsin Rapids and Duluth, Minnesota, while "exploring viable and sustainable alternatives for both mills," including restarting them if market conditions improve, selling them or closing permanently.
Verso has said the decision to idle the plant stemmed from a decline in demand for graphic paper due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Retail, sports, entertainment and tourism industries reduced their use of print advertising during safer-at-home orders.
The shutdown of the Wisconsin Rapids mill started in July and will continue in phases through the end of the year. According to the United Steelworkers union, 140 of the mills 902 employees worked through the end of August and 97 worked through the end of September. About 60 employees will continue working at the mill through the end of the year.
State Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point told Sams during the meeting that he was troubled by the announcement and was confused as to why Verso's board would want to delay a sale until the economy improves.
"This affects 900 families," Testin said. "Why is Verso turning around this entire process when the whole point of this task force is to solve this issue?"
Sams said multiple parties have been interested in buying the mill, but more than one prospective buyer has been unable to travel to Wisconsin Rapids to "kick the tires" due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sams said.
He said every interested party has been in the papermaking industry and none are interested in scrapping the mill for parts. However, he said, it won't be good for Verso's business to sell the mill to a company that would be a direct competitor and produce the same products.
Sams said Verso's board of directors doesn't have a timeline beyond waiting for the economy to improve, but the company plans to continue its converting operation and preserve equipment at the mill to get through a Wisconsin winter so it would be possible to get the mill up and running again once the economy improves.
Krug said the task force had identified two buyers in the last four months that would have been interested in buying the mill, but Verso has not been cooperative. Phoenix Paper, a Chinese company that previously bought an idled Verso mill in Illinois, had been mentioned in previous task force meetings as a potential buyer.
"(Verso has) proved to our workforce, our community, everybody that they're simply out for themselves at this point," Krug said.
Sams sympathized with the workers and families in Wisconsin Rapids, but Verso has a business to run, he said.
During Wednesday's meeting, union representatives urged Verso to think of the people in the community who are waiting to hear if they will have a job to return to.
"You're going to lose a lot of people," said Tim Pavlik, president of the United Steelworkers Local 2-94 union. "A lot of people are gone already. You're going to need a workforce to operate this mill and I'm not sure you'll have that. Make your decision and let your people move forward. Let this community move forward."
Meanwhile, the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association has made progress with its plan to create a cooperative to buy and run the mill. The timber group created Consolidated Cooperative with plans to get community members and millworkers involved to own and run the mill.
The timber co-op became an official entity Aug. 3 and set money aside for a feasibility study to look at what could work for the Rapids mill and what community ownership would look like. By mid-August, the group had formed a steering committee that was looking for other groups that might be interested in creating co-ops to form a multi-co-op group to run the mill.
Don Peterson with the Timber Professionals said Wednesday it has hired a lawyer and is working through non-disclosure agreements and moving forward with the multi-stakeholder cooperative. The Consolidated Cooperative has also identified product ideas and financing options.
"The (co-op) is a serious potential buyer for this mill," Testin said in a press release he and Krug issued Wednesday afternoon. "And we on the task force think it is the best avenue we know of for getting the mill operating again. However, today we learned that Verso is putting efforts to sell the mill on the back burner. Our community deserves better."
Krug said the task force will begin working with the state, the governor's office and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation to support an economic package for a new buyer and especially for the Consolidated Cooperative.
Testin said the task force wants Verso tell the group who a buyer can talk to and what it is going to take to get the mill sold. If Verso is waiting for the economy to improve, it needs to set benchmarks that could be met to complete a sale.
"We want Verso to get serious about selling this mill," Testin said. "No more run around."
Chadwick Stelmacher, vice president of USW, said Verso's employees in Wisconsin Rapids need to know what's happening to the mill.
"A lot of people are wondering if they'll have a job or not," Stelmacher said to Sams. "You need to let people know."