Shutdown slows International Falls response to layoffs

Among the thousands of detours, flat tires and temporary dead ends caused by the federal government shutdown is International Falls’ effort to obtain $550,000 to help it cope with layoffs at the mainstay paper mill in town.

After Boise announced last spring that it would eliminate 265 jobs, leaving around 580 remaining, the city and Koochiching County officials launched a three-pronged effort to keep the community afloat. With guidance from the Duluth-based Northspan Group, teams of residents and officials set out in July to deal with business development, retaining the city’s workforce and building a long-term strategy for the community.

And the first tangible result was to put together an application for help from the federal Economic Development Administration, which is in the business of assisting in situations like this. The application was submitted on Sept. 13 and the agency is supposed to turn them around in 45 days. The shutdown brought all work to a halt, said Northspan executive director Randy Lasky. “Here we sit.”

Is it morning in International Falls? (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

The three groups, part of an “economic response team” co-chaired by Mayor Bob Anderson and county commissioner Wade Pavleck, are proceeding nonetheless.  The one moving with perhaps the greatest urgency is dealing with the people who lost their jobs. What are their plans? Will they leave town for work? Are they thinking about starting businesses? What training do they think would be valuable? “How do we support a family that remains here if the spouse is (working) in North Dakota?” Lasky asked. “Can we even set up a commuter vehicle for people? We have to think of things creatively.”

A second team, for business development, is looking at existing businesses and immediate opportunities in an effort “to demonstrate some hope.”

And the third is trying to map out the long term for a city that has for decades been a company town and now may need a new identity. “It’s a community process that I don’t think International Falls or Koochiching County has ever gone through,” said Lasky.

MPR News reporter Jennifer Vogel has launched a reporting project on these issues and some of the people who will determine whether the community is successful. You can find her work so far on this page. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks, both online and on the air.

The whole retooling process is in its infancy, Lasky said, and he envisions a long haul of 18 months to do the work needed. He’s been through similar trauma in other northern Minnesota cities as mines shut down and paper plants cut back. “The Falls situation is more difficult,” he said. It’s isolated and remote, its economy less diverse. “But certainly it has strengths and opportunities and I think they will (succeed).”