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Coleman gets earful on economy in Duluth

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman spent more than an hour Friday afternoon listening to Duluth business people and a homeowner talk about how they're faring in the current economic environment and heard viewpoints that ranged from disheartening -- from the ...

U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman spent more than an hour Friday afternoon listening to Duluth business people and a homeowner talk about how they're faring in the current economic environment and heard viewpoints that ranged from disheartening -- from the forest products industry -- to optimistic -- from real estate agents.

During the informal public meeting, held in a conference room at the NewPage (formerly Stora Enso) paper mill in West Duluth, Coleman, R-Minn., listened more than he spoke. It was an opportunity for him to learn and hear ideas during these "clearly challenging economic times," he said.

"The great ideas don't originate with me sitting behind my desk in Washington," Coleman said.

Concerns about the forest products industry dominated much of the discussion. NewPage Operations Manager Paul Heller said his company's efforts to protect American paper companies from low-priced imports from the Far East ultimately had been nixed by the World Trade Organization. He appealed to Coleman to help "level the playing field."

The paper industry has not suffered an industry-wide depression the way wood products have, but if the nation falls into recession, the paper industry often feels it sooner and longer, said Wayne Brandt, executive vice president of Minnesota Forest Industries and the Minnesota Timber Producers Association.

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Wood products have been hit harder due to the nationwide downturn in new home construction and remodeling, he said. Noting that77 percent of the wood products made in Minnesota are exported from the state, Brandt pointed out that the housing slump across the country has had a devastating effect on the entire industry, from loggers to corporations that make home-building products.

"Talk to some of the old timers and they say this is the worst they've ever seen," said Scott Dane, executive director of Associated Contract Loggers and Truckers. "If we lose the paper mills," he said later in the discussion, "there's the end of the wood-products industry in Minnesota. There's no doubt about that."

But real estate agents had a more optimistic perspective. "Things in the business community [of Duluth] are not as bad as they are in other places," said Dave Holappa, owner of Holappa Commercial Real Estate. He said he's optimistic because iron ore consumption is at good levels and because of planned large-scale investments in mining and steel production on the Iron Range.

John Walker, a real estate agent at Messina & Associates Inc., echoed Holappa. The local market has seen only modest changes, he said, which he credited in part to a growing health-care industry and a stable community.

John Doberstein said he is concerned about the adverse environmental effects of mining for nonferrous metals such as copper and nickel, which has drawn interest in northern Minnesota. Before companies start producing precious metals, "I think right now we have an opportunity to investigate," he said. Coleman agreed to look into the subject.

Kent Jacobs of Ainsworth Lumber Co., which has temporarily shuttered two of its three Minnesota oriented-strand-board mills because of market conditions, said the nation has the potential to build far more houses than it is currently constructing. "I urge you to do what you can for the banking and mortgage problems," he said.

Coleman said he wants to do what he can but he fears restricting opportunity as well. "One of the worst things in my business is the sin of unintended consequences," he said.

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