A Northwoods paper mill that abruptly closed in June is calling workers back.
Flambeau River Papers was founded in 1896, and the city of Park Falls grew up around it. But the struggling company entered receivership earlier this year and is seeking a buyer.
The mill halted production in June, laying off about 180 workers. But on July 1, a court approved a deal with a vendor to purchase an estimated 75 tons of pulp product per day. That, combined with a loan of about $2 million also approved in court, will allow the mill to resume production.
Some workers have already received notices that they’ll be called back as soon as next week, said Park Falls Mayor Michael Bablick. The short-term deal also means at least some of the laid-off workers will get back pay, Bablick said.
His main reason for optimism, though, is that a working mill will be a more attractive option for a buyer.
"If there was nobody interested in buying it, there would be no point in reopening it," Bablick said.
The company and the attorney acting as its receiver did not return calls from WPR seeking comment. Court documents obtained by WPR state that the reopening of the mill will "maximize the value of (the company’s) assets."
The mill has three paper machines. For years, its major product was copy paper, but as demand has declined, it has increased production of specialty packaging materials and, more recently, of a pulp product it sells to other producers.
Bablick said the mill has been central to Park Falls itself as a major employer and the highest-paying local manufacturing job. That, in turn, created pressure on other employers to pay more.
"This paper mill provided well-paying jobs that kind of kept this area better off than other rural areas," Bablick said. The closure, he said, "has been stressful of course for the workers more than anyone. But (it’s been stressful) for the community as well, because Park Falls is so intertwined in a lot of ways to the paper mill."
It's not the first time the mill has closed. The previous owner, the Ohio-based company SMART Papers, stopped production there in 2006 when it filed for bankruptcy. Entrepreneur William "Butch" Johnson then bought the mill with the help of millions in subsidies from the state.
In a May press release, Johnson said he would seek a buyer willing to take on the "smaller, but more focused" operation.
Bablick said the workers and Park Falls' 2,500 residents expect to know more about the mill's future after an auction in late August.
"Now we’re waiting for the next chapter," he said, "which we hope is better than what it is now."
Editor's note: Danielle Kaeding contributed reporting to this story.