First of its kind multi-state cooperative says it’s just waiting on Verso’s call in order to begin reopening the Wisconsin Rapids mill

By Emily Davies

WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. (WSAW) - Dennis Schoeneck, owner of Enterprise Forest Products in Pelican Lake, said his “business changed immediately on June 9, 2020″ when the Verso Mill in Wisconsin Rapids suddenly closed.

“It was 9 o’clock in the morning when I got the call that said as of this afternoon, don’t ever ship another load there.”

His business harvests trees and over 40 years he sent, “a lot,” he laughed, “you know, 80% of our business went there.”

The paper mill processed about a quarter of Wisconsin’s timber market.

“So now, whatever mill is left somehow has to try to absorb that impact,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

The closure, of course, impacted the 900 employees there. It was one of the primary employers for the area. It also impacted the entire forest industry. Other mills only have so much processing capacity. Loggers, then, have fewer places to take timber, which means they have had to back off on how much they harvest. That impacts landowners and county and state foresters, who rely on the loggers to be able to harvest their timber, providing reliable revenue and forestry management.

Despite high lumber demands, which are processed through sawmills, Schoeneck said they still need pulp mills so the whole tree can be used and much of that pulp went to the Verso mill.

“So without those markets, two things are going to happen: 1) you’re either going to quit cutting trees, or 2) you’re going to quit cutting the pulp out of the trees that you’re cutting. We don’t want to do that here in Wisconsin,” he stated.

A day after the mill closed, members of the Forest Industry Safety and Training Alliance had a regularly scheduled meeting.

“We kind of looked at each other, it’s like we got to buy that thing,” Schoeneck said.

They formed a cooperative of truckers and loggers called the Timber Professionals Cooperative meant to get things in motion to come up with a plan to purchase the mill. They ultimately formed the Consolidate Cooperative, made up of all stakeholders, which would be the entity to buy and manage the mill.

“The whole goal was to have a multi-stakeholder, in other words, everyone that has interest in that mill, being able to run that mill.”

He said it is the first time a cooperative has attempted to purchase and run a mill. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has been involved with coordinating that effort, including connecting the cooperative with an attorney to navigate the possibility of the purchase. WEDC also awarded the cooperative a $100,000 grant for a feasibility study to determine whether having a cooperative own and run the mill would be sustainable.

WEDC along with several legislators including Republicans Sen. Patrick Testin and Rep. Scott Krug, and democrat Rep. Katrina Shankland have been meeting as part of the Wisconsin Rapids Together Task Force to work towards solutions for the future of the mill and the city. After Verso’s announcement in the fall that it would no longer be marketing the mill’s sale, those legislators along with democrats Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Rep. Ron Kind called on Verso to continue the marketing and make a sale for the good of the city and industry and to consider the cooperative’s offer. WEDC told NewsChannel 7 Verso’s announcement was due to challenges finding buyers during the pandemic.

Earlier this month, Rep. Kind announced that the city will receive $144,000 from the Economic Development Administration through the CARES Act to help fund a recovery strategy after the mill closure and pandemic economic impacts. “The project will include a market assessment, community participation in goal-setting, redevelopment strategies for the neighborhood where the mill was located, and an action plan to implement recommendations made in the strategy,” the press release stated. The mill employees also received support to secure future employment through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance petition Rep. Kind and others filed on the workers’ behalf.

Verso contacted WEDC just before its closure announcement and WEDC said Friday it does not have any updates on what Verso plans to do with the mill but has been in regular contact with the company. Verso has not yet responded to NewsChannel 7′s request for comment.

Verso set a condition in that the next owner of the mill would not be able to sell the same paper product Verso produced. Schoeneck would not say what exactly they would plan to produce but confirmed it would remain a pulp mill. He said marketers in North Carolina and Washington state reached out to the cooperative interested in their product and told them they would have markets for their product domestically and overseas. Schoeneck said if Verso secures the sale with the cooperative, they have the finances ready to begin converting the mill to be able to make the product they plan to sell and then open the mill.

“The materials your houses are built out of, from the peanut butter wrappers that your kids eat Reeses Peanut Butter Cups out of to toothpaste you use to brush your teeth all comes from a wood byproduct,” he said. “It affects all of us.”

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