The floods that devastated parts of northern and southern Minnesota last month could end up benefiting a central Minnesota paper mill destroyed by fire.
Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to call a special legislative session to consider flood aid and now says he wants to consider helping the mill as well. But even with the governor's backing, the owners of the mill in Sartell aren't ready to commit to rebuilding.
Dayton was on the scene a day after the Memorial Day explosion at the Verso Paper Mill. The blast and fire that followed killed one worker and injured four others.
Following a meeting with Verso Paper executives, Dayton told reporters he was committed to seeing the mill reopen.
"The state of Minnesota will do everything it possibly can to get this plant operating again as soon as possible and protect the jobs that are here. They're vitally important to Sartell and this area and they're vitally important to Minnesota," Dayton said.
And in a letter delivered Monday to Verso Paper CEO David Paterson, Dayton reiterated his support for the mill in Sartell. He called it "crucially important" to the state's economy.
In the letter, Dayton said he plans to call a special legislative session in the coming weeks to get state aid to communities impacted by flooding and all but invited the company to participate.
He wrote to the mill's chief executive, "Your disaster certainly qualifies for similar emergency assistance."
Verso Paper spokesman Bill Cohen said the company is still totaling up the damage, examining the costs of rebuilding and working with the insurance company.
"The governor said from his perspective 'Time is of the essence' and we hear that message," Cohen said. "At the same time, we've got to go through our internal process. It's active and ongoing on a day-to-day basis."
Cohen said Verso is aware of the special session and taking that into consideration, along with other forms of governmental support.
"It would be wrong to say that the company is not interested or lukewarm to the support," he said.
According to the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development, support could come in the way of grants or maybe some special tax relief.
Support is based on need, said Mark Phillips, DEED commissioner.
"Clearly they'd have to lay out what their options are what insurance they've got and tell us specifically what's holding them back from reopening. And then we'd have to take a look at [and] see if there's something we could do to make that more likely."
Phillips adds that the paper industry is going through difficult times.
"This is a marketplace issue as well as the fire issue. We can't change the consumption patterns of the paper industry," Phillips said. "But we can tweak around the edges where we can have some influence on making things more attractive for them to reopen this plant."
Almost six weeks to the day after the fire, the mill sits largely quiet on the banks of the Mississippi River. From a bridge overlooking the mill, the damage is still visible. Portions of the blue metal walls that make up the warehouse are missing. Soot from the fire has stained others.
And there's plenty of parking in the mill's lot. Most of the plants 259 workers have been laid off — and that's on top of 175 employees laid off at the mill last year.
At Sartell City Hall, City Administrator Patti Gartland said there's a lot of uncertainty in the community and also a sense of loss.
"As you travel anywhere near Sartell in our skyline you always see the stack at the mill. And you use to see a nice white white puffy smoke coming out," Gartland said. "Now when you see it, it's sitting there idle so it's kind of this constant reminder whenever you're out and about."
The mill pays $185,000 in annual property taxes — the city's single-largest source. But Gartland said Verso is going to extensive lengths as it weighs whether to rebuild — everything down to whether certain electrical parts are even available.
"Those are all to me very positive indicators that they are making a very serious diligent effort to try and reopen," Gartland said.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation. But officials have ruled out arson.