On days the paper mill is operating, a century-old steam whistle sounds at noon over Park Falls.
It’s been silent for most of the past year as the mill went through layoffs, a closure, and bankruptcy.
But the whistle sounded again on Wednesday, and it will sound into the future as the mill begins to come to life again.
On Wednesday, the city celebrated a new mill owner – Park Falls Industrial Management – and the reopening of the mill under a new name – Park Falls Pulp and Paper.
“The lights are on, paper will be starting to be made. It’s good to smell the sulphur again in the air,” said Mayor Michael Bablick. “People wake up and smell the flowers. Well, our flowers are sulphur.”
Bablick estimates he’s spent 80 percent of his hours as mayor trying to negotiate a future for the mill.
He’s excited about the new ownership group, which is headed by a New Jersey man named Yong Liu.
“Thank you, everybody, for gathering together today to celebrate the opening for this old and new paper mill,” Liu said at a ribbon-cutting on Wednesday. “After a year of rest, the mill is back.”
Park Falls had never known life as a community without an operating mill, which dates to the late 1800s.
But about 300 people lost their jobs between 2017 and 2019 as the mill fell into bankruptcy and receivership.
“It was extraordinarily stressful. Last summer was the summer of hell for this community and the workers here,” Bablick said.
Bablick said he thought the mill might end up being sold for scrap, but the new investment group saved its fate.
The mill’s pulp operation is already running. Its three paper machines will restart in the coming weeks.
Managers may shift the mill away from traditional papermaking on machines that are about a century old, instead focusing on paper products more in demand.
“The paper industry is in trouble in Wisconsin. These mills have to get into a new program of what they’re going to make to survive. Luckily, this management team understands that, and they’re not going to double down on the same losing strategy,” Bablick said.
A $1 million loan from the city helped the mill reopen.
But just as important as the money was the community’s resilience, said state Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Mason).
“This community is blessed, and all of this happened because of people, because of regular people,” she said. “Thank you for all being regular people, for being the kind of folks who don’t give up and who are responsible for what happened here today.”
The mill also closed for several months in 2006 before being bought and restarted by Flambeau River Papers.
But in Bablick’s mind, as long as the mill is running and the whistle is sounding, the future in Park Falls is bright.