INTERNATIONAL FALLS -- For months, the Coffee Landing has been as good a place as any to take the temperature of a town getting rocked by tough economic news. The coffee shop on this city's main drag has seen quiet conversations among suited businessmen stepping away from the massive paper mill a block away, tearful accounts of jobs lost and lives disrupted when 265 positions were cut this fall, wondering chatter about what happens next in this iconic Minnesota border town.
This afternoon, you could hear people trying to will the place to look at itself with fresh eyes and invent.
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We invited nine International Falls residents -- natives, newcomers, left-and-came-backers, old, young, layoff sufferers and entrepreneurs -- to the back room at the Coffee Landing to share with us and themselves the hopes and misgivings they have for this place. You'll be able to hear some of what they said Friday morning on the Daily Circuit as part of a special program on how International Falls is rethinking itself as its mainstay employer shrinks. At the same time, you can join a live chat on the topic here.
"This is my home," said Stephanie Heinle, who owns the coffee shop with her husband. "That's why I struggle to make the best living I can and I urge others to do the same." They plan to start selling their house-roasted coffee online after the first of the year, and she spun out entrepreneurial ideas like sparks from a Fourth of July sparkler -- a new hotel near Voyageurs National Park, a brewery, a canoe shop.
"It starts with pen and paper and an idea," she said.
Beth Peterson agreed but noted why people are reluctant. She works at the local driver and vehicle services office and her husband was among those whose jobs at the mill were cut. "One of the biggest things that stops people is the fear factor," she said. "We have great leadership in town but people just need to step out of their box."
The challenge is significant. Manufacturing jobs that pay like those at the mill are hard to find and, even more, this is a city that grew over a century to rely on the mill, sometimes to the exclusion of other possibilities.
When business operator RaeAnne Conat said the community needed an idea bank, library director Diane Adams offered that the library "can be that bank."
Another attribute in too short supply: tolerance, in the mind of Jordan Pearson, a 24-year-old native and owner of Island View Realty. "Diversity is the key to success," and not everyone in town exhibits an appreciation for it. He said he hears racial slurs more often in International Falls than he does elsewhere. "We need more creativity and open minds."
Reflecting that theme, Jenell Feller, who works for the Occupational Development Center, said the community needed to encourage more of the foreign students attending Rainy River Community College to stay. But Stephen Briggs, a native who teaches at the college, said foreign students love to be on campus but hesitate to participate in town life. "They feel separate from the community," Briggs said, mentioning a Somali student who stayed for a term and moved back to the Twin Cities.
"That's something that needs to change in the community."
As these things do, the conversation shifted from a Q and A led by reporter Jennifer Vogel and me to a back and forth among the participants, and I could feel the tempo pickup. No one minimized the challenge but you couldn't mistake enthusiasm, either.
JoAnn Smith, who lost an engineering job at the mill and bought the Viking Bar with her husband, is planning to take long distance business courses from Bemidji State. Ward Merrill is pleased to have filled the Backus Community Center, the old public school once suggested for demolition, with thriving organizations.
Conat was another voice urging entrepreneurial spirit. “I really hate to see people cap yourself off.” She launched a business at home, SwankySweetPea, and now sends unique bath soaps nationally and internationally.
Most of those gathered around the coffee table said they sensed an improving mood in town, less shock and worry. While they think it’s still early – severance pay hasn’t been spent and maybe post-Christmas is when the impact will really hit home – the conversations at the Coffee Landing are more upbeat, Heinle said.
“I’ve seen a lot of hesitant optimism,” was the way Briggs put it.
"I choose to see the glass half full," Feller said. "Even this difficult, challenging thing, I choose to see this as an opportunity. We are hardy, tough, strong and stubborn. We're going to make it."