In wake of Boise layoffs, Dayton to visit International Falls

Gov. Mark Dayton will head to International Falls, a city of 6,400 on the Canadian border, to meet Wednesday with residents about recent layoffs at the Boise paper mill and the announced sale of Boise to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America (PCA).

“I want to find out what the sense is of the people closest to the situation, people who work at the plant and government officials, how they view this change,” Dayton said. “Any time you have the major employer, and really the focal point of the community for so many years, being sold to another company, there is a lot of uncertainty and understandable anxiety.”

Dayton said he called PCA chief executive officer Mark Kowlzan a few weeks ago to talk about the remaining 580 jobs at the mill in International Falls. “He was very reassuring,” the governor said. “I came away very hopeful that they are going to pay off some of the debt but then invest in the plant and give it a good future.”

Nonetheless, with fewer mill jobs in International Falls, city and Koochiching County officials, residents and businesspeople have been trying to figure out how to diversify the local economy and create a new kind of job that will keep the area vital.

The Boise plant completed a round of layoffs Oct. 1 that cost 265 workers, about a third of the mill’s workforce, their jobs. The layoffs are expected to pack an economic wallop in the coming months and years that will affect everything from local grocery store sales to school enrollment. The pending sale to PCA has added more uncertainty to the situation.

It’s difficult to diversify an economy in a town that’s anchored by one large employer, Dayton acknowledged. “It’s very hard when a company as dominant in the community as Boise has been for decades now, when the economic forces change and the use of paper in this electronic age has been cut back drastically… As a city, it exists in its present form in part because of the existence of that company. If that company downsizes or goes out of business or sells, the impact is enormous. It’s economic in terms of people having jobs and buying products and services in that community.” But it also affects “psychology and hope for the future. And young kids (thinking), ‘Should we stay here and do we have a future here?’

“It’s tough to have these decisions made, that have such a profound effect on their lives and are so largely out of their control,” Dayton said.

“The governor has a big heart,” said International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson of Wednesday’s visit. “Certainly, he knows the depth of loss to the community. To take $15 to $20 million out of the payroll, it will have some effect.”

International Falls mayor Bob Anderson (MPR photo by Derek Montgomery)

Anderson helped set up citizen committees to develop new economic ideas. He said members of those committees will be present during the meeting with the governor, scheduled to take place in a refurbished former county courtroom.

“We (will) talk about the issues that could help the community in this recovery,” Anderson said, noting that the city could use help from the Legislature next session with bonding for a new airport building and a sewer line along the shore of Rainy Lake. Both projects, he said, would boost business and tourism. “We certainly need the support of the governor’s office.”

When asked whether the visit is a big deal, Anderson said, “Absolutely. We’re getting close to the end of the year and the session is starting in February. It’s a key time.”

Dayton said he and other state offices can offer assistance, whether in the form of retraining employees, financial incentives or something else. He said he would “push hard” for the bonding bill to run a new sewer line along Rainy Lake, which he also supported last session. “That’s very important for the resorts that are up there and the attractiveness of the area.”

Acknowledging that there likely isn’t “one magic solution” for the economic troubles in International Falls, Dayton said, “I don’t know exactly what is needed. That is one of the reasons to go up there… Mainly, I want to let them know, the people in the Falls, that I care. And the state of Minnesota cares about their predicament.”

Ground Level has been examining efforts to build a new future for International Falls as part of our “Rethinking a Company Town” project.