Can International Falls reinvent itself?

The streets in downtown International Falls, Minn. on Tuesday, September 24, 2013. (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

I first saw the paper mill in International Falls in the late 1950s -- from the outside. I was too little to take the plant tour (I think you had to be at least 10 years old), but my family was camping and fishing nearby and my dad was determined that the rest of the family should see this icon of the north woods. The plant was producing massive amounts of paper from the unending surrounding woods, and it was the definition of the town.

Decades on, the icon has diminished and will shrink some more this weekend when part of the mill shuts down. Boise Inc. is reducing production, and, in the process some 265 high-paying manufacturing jobs are getting axed. Adding to the problem is the pending sale of the company to Packaging Corp. of America, which may be more interested in packaging than in the office paper the International Falls plant focus on.

As Mayor Bob Anderson puts it, "Certainly this ranks up there as a calamity."

So what happens next? What happens when a major employer makes a decision that, at the least, leaves a quarter-billion-dollar hole in the local economy?

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That's what Anderson and the rest of the people in International Falls and Koochiching County are trying to figure out right now and in coming months and years. Do people move away? Can workers get training in fields that are hiring? Is there a way to reinvent what has long been a company town?

In all, it's a classic, pointed case of the challenges we chronicled in our eBook project "Fighting for an American Countryside."  And we're planning to track the effort in International Falls.

Reporter Jennifer Vogel is in International Falls this week talking to people and you'll read and hear the fruits of her labor in coming days and weeks. But we started by asking residents about the future through our Public Insight Network.


The answers ranged from beer to broadband and from hope to hand-wringing.

Leveraging tourism and timber are two big, if obvious, ideas people brought up, taking advantage of the scenery and the natural resources. But so was taking advantage of the high quality water (ranked second best in North America by one test).

"We have abundant water resources here and I believe that there are companies and businesses that would benefit from our water availability and abundance," said Bruce Wilson, the city's chief water operator.  "Breweries, hydroponics and other water intensive industries and endeavors should be aggressively pursued."

Mat Olson, a native who left and returned, echoed the thought. "I don't have solid numbers yet, but I feel strongly that the city should start a brewery. It is happening all over the country."

Others mentioned the health care industry and the substantial border rail transportation presence as opportunities. As always in these conversations, improving technology to increase telecommuting comes up. Encouraging entrepreneurship and help from the outside are not far from people's minds.

"I would really like to see a Falls High alumni come home and build a business like Arctic Cat, Polaris or Marvin Windows here," said 16-year resident Jenell Feller.

Some think there are lessons to be learned from concentrating one's economic health on one industry operated by outsiders. Is there enough of a base of entrepreneurial know-how and investment capital, wonders Jeffrey Kantor, a University of Notre Dame professor who graduated from high school in International Falls years ago and recently returned as a seasonal resident.

"The area is blessed with two key resources, an outstanding natural environment headlined by a pristine National Park, and a large-scale renewable timber supply," Kantor wrote. "Learning to responsibly exploit these resources retaining earnings for reinvestment, could provide an economically viable future. However, this will not happen without local leadership."

There's no question that pessimism is ample in town. "It would take a miracle to replace these lost Boise jobs," said fishing guide and International Falls native Woody Woods. But people look around at manufacturing successes in Warroad and Roseau and see possible examples of success, too.

"We need to look at towns like Bemidji and Grand Rapids," said Jessica Crosby, business manager for UnitedHealthGroup. "Those small towns are able to support a healthy retail industry and they are growing!! What are they doing that we could emulate?"

Tell us what you think about International Falls' future. You can find others' responses to our questions here and you can provide your own here. Or just comment on this blog post at the bottom. Then stay tuned.