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How Two Cooperatives Plan to Bring Back Paper Mills in Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls

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Ben Meyer/WXPR
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A bill passed by the Wisconsin legislature would give multi-million-dollar loans to two cooperatives looking to purchase the idled Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls paper mills.

It still needs Governor Tony Evers’ approval, but in the meantime the plan raises some questions – like how the co-ops will start up in an environment that’s bringing down mills owned by major corporations.

When the Wisconsin Rapids and Park Falls paper mills shut down, they sucked away jobs – and not just from the people who physically worked in the plants.

Northwoods loggers and truck drivers also took a major blow.

Now mill workers and timber professionals are teaming up to take control of their livelihood by forming multi-stake holder cooperatives to purchase and run the idled mills.

Here’s how that works, according to co-op administrator Don Peterson.

“It’s made up of different classes,” he explains. “One class would be the loggers, another the mill workers and a third is industry allies, which fits everyone else in, like landowners, log truckers, anybody else who has livelihood dependent on that mill.”

Each of those classes elects members of a governing board, which gives everyone equal representation in the business.

“We aren’t a family, but the cooperative would give that type of feel to it,” Peterson says.

He hopes this type of ownership will keep the mills operating through good times and bad, to the benefit of all these local workers.

“If you have a market downturn, you won’t necessarily shut the doors,” he says. “You’ll say, everybody has to tighten their belt a little bit to make it through, but we’re going to all be in it together. And that’s the difference – everybody gets and everybody gives together.”

But are there still good times left for the paper industry? Or is demand for certain paper products drying up for good?

Paul Fowler, the director of the Wisconsin Institute of Sustainable Technology at UW-Stevens Point, is cautiously optimistic.

“I think if the co-op formulates its management and leadership with a team that is remarkably well-versed in the opportunities within the paper industry, if it’s able to manage its debt in a way that doesn’t stifle its ability to innovate and make capital investments, and if it’s able to procure long-term customers and partners, then I don’t think the cooperative model is one which we would say it’s not going to work,” he says. “But it depends on all those pieces of the jigsaw coming together and making a nice picture.”

Fowler says the co-ops’ success will depend on their ability to tweak their products to meet changing demand.

He says demand exists, especially amidst a backlash of plastics, but the challenge lies in maintaining enough capital to invest in the really expensive equipment sometimes needed to make those tweaks.

“So long as there’s customers for that product,” he says, “and so long as the mill can be nimble enough to respond, or heaven forbid, proactive enough to lead and change the way that folks think about fiber, then there’s a lot of opportunity.”

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