Learning From The Past: A look at NewPage in Niagara - WAOW - Newsline 9, Wausau News, Weather, Sports

Learning From The Past: A look at NewPage in Niagara


  By Heather Sawaski - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

NIAGARA (WAOW) -- A major blow is coming to communities in Central Wisconsin when NewPage Paper closes it's mill in Whiting, laying off 360 workers. This isn't the first, or even second NewPage mill to shut its doors in Wisconsin. Two and a half years ago there was a similar scenario in Niagara, when NewPage packed up and left town. City leaders say the area is still recovering. 


Nestled between rock cliffs and the Menominee River, the city of Niagara sits only minutes away from the Michigan border.


Almost smack-dab in the middle of the state, a small community on the outskirts of a college town. The Village of Whiting.


They're two communities separated by nearly 200 miles, but they're drawn together by a common bond. Both area's largest employer, NewPage Paper, packing up it's mills and shipping out. For Niagara, the blow came back in 2008.

"The year they closed, they were scheduled to make between $50 and $60 million," explained Niagara Mayor George Bousley. "So that's the frustrating part of the thing."

Companies have been making paper at the Niagara mill site for more than 100 years.. NewPage bought the mill from the Stora Enso Corporation, the mill's former owner, for $2.5 billion back in December of 2007.


Only one month after purchasing the mill, NewPage officials announced plans to shut it down. In August, the machines stopped for good, and 320 people lost their jobs. Mayor Bousley said the news shook the area. Not only did people lose their jobs, the local economy lost millions. He said the company's payroll alone was well over $20 million.

"If you take that $20 million and you just look at the economic impact into this economic region," Bousley said. "That's what hurts. You don't get that benefit."


Mayor Bousley said only about 15% of the laid off workers actually lived in Niagara. The city is part of a larger community, including towns across the river in Michigan such as Iron Mountain, Kingsford, and Norway. Some people moved out of the area and took jobs at other NewPage mills in Escanaba or Wisconsin Rapids. Others took advantage of retraining programs from Workforce Development.

"Working in the Niagara Mill, we always knew that the ax could fall at anytime," explained former mill worker Bruce St. Arnauld. "We were an older mill, the way the economy was going, the way the whole country was going, we kind of had this feeling in the backs of our minds that it wouldn't be there forever."


After 31 years working at the Niagara Mill, St. Arnauld went into business for himself. In early 2009, he opened The Big 10 Sports Bar and Grill in Quinnesec, Michigan. He said so far, so good. But he still feels betrayed by the way NewPage handled the shutdown.

"We never did get the real answer why," he said. "You put 31 years in there, you make good money and you work your way up into a decent job. At that time, I was 52 years old. What do you do? What the heck are you going to do now?"


St. Arnauld had restaurant experience to fall back on, but for some of his former co-workers, life after NewPage wasn't so easy. He said not everyone qualified for retraining programs. They were left in the dust. Out of work, and out of luck.

"We averaged about 50 years old at the mill," St. Arnauld explained. "When you've got guys that have 30 years experience making paper, who are the best paper makers in the world, but can't make this new criteria. We never heard of resumes."


As for Mayor Bousley, his focus is on the future. Some leaders in surrounding communities have formed a partnership to find a new use for the old mill. They're trying to bring in potential buyers to give the property, and the people, another chance to thrive.

"It probably won't pay as much as the paper mill jobs," Bousley said. "But if we can diversify that location. We'll create a greater value and create more jobs so if one entity pulls out, it doesn't ruin the whole location."


Two and a half years later, problems still linger and the loss of Niagara's paper mill still stings.

"I'll survive." St. Arnauld said. "NewPage didn't kill me. They hurt me, but they didn't kill me."

NewPage still owns the property in Niagara. Official said a purchase agreement has already been signed with an interested buyer, and a deal could be finalized later this year.


Coming up in the second part of our series, we take the evidence of what happened in Niagara to officials in Portage County. Find out how they plan to deal with the Whiting closure coming up Thursday on Newsline 9 at 10.

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