Rethinking a company town: International Falls tries to forge new future

Boise paper mill
Steam rises from the Boise paper mill Monday, November 11, 2013 in International Falls, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

It's been a month and a half since this border town lost 265 jobs at its mainstay paper mill on the Rainy River. It was an economic blow that is forcing the city to examine whether it can or should forge a future different from its past.

The shock is over and many of the tears have dried. Snow has fallen, lakes are freezing and, this week, deer hunting seems to dominate all.

Severance packages are keeping some families going and federal assistance provides job training for others. Ideas for transformation glimmer, but the pressure of a changing economy and shifting demographics is relentless.

MPR News' Ground Level project has been chronicling residents' reactions and plans, and on Friday The Daily Circuit's Tom Weber presents a special program called "Rethinking a Company Town." Weber was in International Falls this week with the Ground Level team, including reporter Jennifer Vogel, talking to residents, officials, business people and others to gauge the mood and try to peer into the future of this iconic North Woods city just across the river from Canada.

It is a classic company town, centered on a century-old paper-making operation that has been an engine both of good jobs and of a lifestyle of hunting, fishing and intense outdoors independence.

At this point, most eyes are still on the mill. They scrutinize every move of the new owners, Packaging Corporation of America, including a visit last week by CEO Mark Kowlzan. Will the existing 580 jobs be safe? Will mothballed paper machines be reactivated? All rumors find eager ears, and listeners bring their own levels of skepticism, perhaps depending on their need for good news.

Bob Anderson
International Falls mayor Bob Anderson prepares french toast during a breakfast the the Elks Lodge Monday, November 11, 2013 in International Falls, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"I feel certainly much more confident, having spent a few hours with [Kowlzan]," said International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson, as he drove with Weber to visit hunting shacks in the woods on Sunday. "I think he has genuine interest in making this mill go."

At the same time, another kind of watching and waiting proceeds. Will laid-off workers leave town when the severance runs out? Are some simply waiting out the powerful draw of the hunting season, or Christmas? Can new ideas gain traction? And, as in the rest of small-town America, how can a community counter the effects of an aging and declining population?

One answer could rely on a better relationship with nearby Voyageurs National Park, and on tourism generally. "There are a lot of national parks in the country that are over-loved. We're not one of those," said park Superintendent Mike Ward.

Ward Merrill
Ward Merrill, Director at the Backus Community Center, talks about the strengths, weaknesses and ways forward for International Falls, Minn. just a few weeks after the Boise paper plant laid off nearly 300 workers Sunday, November 10, 2013 at the Coffee Landing Cafe in International Falls, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Another answer could be to capitalize on a busy rail crossing at the border by providing manufacturing or light assembly of rail goods. "We're in the middle of the continent, at the main crossing for CN rail," said Paul Nevanan, head of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority. "How do you make that an opportunity?"

The city and Koochiching County have launched formal efforts designed to establish strategies for keeping workers and building visions for future prosperity.

But some residents also express the sense that the best hope may lie in nurturing a new entrepreneurial spirit, something long dormant in a town that had a paper mill to take care of it. "People have to start thinking outside the box," said Ward Merrill, a retired teacher who runs the Backus Community Center in the former public school.

• Photos: Scenes from International Falls

• Listen: Willing success in the back room of the Coffee Landing

• Join the conversation: Rethinking a company town

One example is an engineering class, offered at the high school, that combines math and industrial technology, attracting a blend of students. The class aims to show young people there are vocational paths open to them if they stay in the area.

"Certainly if we aren't able to see that turnover where we can get more of these younger people here, to hold the jobs, we are going to see a continued vortex downward," Anderson said. "But if there are opportunities, people will come back."

A bar owner plans to take a long-distance business course to hone her expertise. A laid-off mill employee works a job two hours away on the Iron Range and commutes home on weekends. A waitress says she's heading for Durango, Colo., to look for opportunities. Old-timers say things won't change. A tourism advocate says the national park can double its attendance.

A month and a half after the job cuts, few of the answers are in, of course. But you can see them start to form.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.