WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. (From news reports) -- The Verso mill is in the process of idling this week in Wisconsin Rapids, but task force leaders say they have to continue to endeavor to find solutions for the future of the site.
"This week is tough," said state Rep. Scott Krug, R-Nekoosa, at a Wisconsin Rapids Together Task Force meeting Wednesday. "Now is not the time to let our foot off the gas, it's not the time to stop or slow down."
Krug and state Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, created the group to keep the mill up and running, help Verso find potential buyers and support employees and their families.
Verso announced in June it would stop production at its paper mills in Wisconsin Rapids and Duluth, Minnesota, indefinitely, while "exploring viable and sustainable alternatives for both mills," including restarting if market conditions improve, selling the mills or closing permanently.
Verso said the decision 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.
As a result of the indefinite idle, Verso said it would lay off 902 employees at the Wisconsin Rapids mill starting July 31. The company announced a small crew will continue to work at the facility to keep it operational and maintained for any future owners.
At Wednesday's meeting, Tim Pavlik, the president of the United Steelworkers union, said there is a tentative agreement between Verso and the unions that will be shared with employees over the next few days. There will not be a formalized meeting because of precautions due to COVID-19.
Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Shane Blaser said he has talked with Gov. Tony Evers about the situation, who said the state is committed to helping Wisconsin Rapids move forward. Blaser said he has been meeting with a lot of mill employees who are looking for more information.
"Everything is in transition, it's constantly changing," Blaser said. "It's a waiting game."
Krug said Wednesday that he had been talking recently with Verso CEO Adam St. John, and St. John had indicated Verso was in conversations with interested parties to purchase the mill.
At a July 15 task force meeting, Henry Schienebeck, the executive director of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association talked about the impact a mill closure in Wisconsin Rapids would have on the forestry industry due to the wood used in production. He said within hours of Verso's announcement on June 9, loggers and truckers were shut down from their operations. More than 10,000 jobs would be affected by the mill shutdown, including contractors and workers in trucking and logging industries, he said.
A mill shutdown also impacts forest management and the overall health of forest lands in Wisconsin. Landowners in the Managed Forest Land program would still be required to cut timber, but without a mill, there is nowhere to harvest it, Schienebeck said. Wisconsin has great forests because of sustainable management, he said, with certification systems that are checked regularly. With less management, the forests would suffer, and it would also have an impact on tourism in the area, as well, Schienebeck said.
"Who wants to come see a dead forest?" Schienebeck said.
Schienebeck said he and others had been looking into creating a multistate cooperative even before Verso announced it would idle the Wisconsin Rapids mill. The group is looking into the possibility of creating multiple co-ops between loggers, mill workers and the community to work together to own and run a mill. Schienebeck said the group had been researching products and what could work as a cooperative.
On Wednesday, Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, said she has been having conversations about co-ops, including researching what could be feasible at the Rapids mill. Hughes said the co-op is one of the most innovative and best opportunities in the state for a long-term plan.
Paul Fowler, the executive director of the Wisconsin Institute for Sustainable Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said the university has connected with Schienebeck and others to figure out how UWSP can be a resource to help in short-term goals and long-term strategies for the industry, as well.