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St. Louis County spends on mental health, paper mill

During their meeting Tuesday in Twig, the commissioners hailed the repurposing of the Duluth paper mill as a wise investment, agreeing to match the city of Duluth's $600,000 in property tax abatement.

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The former Verso paper mill in West Duluth on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (Steve Kuchera / 2021 file / News Tribune)

Presaging the reopening of St. Louis County buildings and offices June 1, the County Board has been on the road for more than a month now as pandemic precautions ease.

On Tuesday, it met at the Grand Lake Town Hall in Twig, where commissioners unanimously approved major expenditures to advance projects related to both mental health and the regional economy.

First, commissioners agreed to match the city of Duluth by approving $600,000 in property tax abatement across 10 years for the new buyers of the paper mill in Duluth.

PREVIOUSLY: ST Paper moves ahead with plans to acquire, convert Duluth's former Verso mill A new owner is counting on support from the state, county and city to restore at least 80 jobs.
ST Paper, of Oconto Falls, Wisconsin, will refurbish the mill to produce tissue-type papers and expects to reopen sometime in 2023 with a full-time staff of 80 — substantially fewer than the 220 Verso employed before it closed in summer 2020, but commissioners agreed far better than an idle facility.

“I support this wholeheartedly,” said Board Chair Mike Jugovich, of Chisholm. “We understand how important it is to keep people working. … If we learned anything over the last year, year and a half, it’s that we need manufacturing in this country.”

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Mike Jugovich

Ronald Thiry, senior vice president and chief operating officer, addressed the board, relaying history of the 14-year-old company with two current mills in operation in the United States, including one north of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the other in Franklin, Virginia — both preexisting mills taken over by the company.

“We make jumbo rolls of paper using recycled fiber, and also, depending on the products, we may also use a good portion of virgin wood pulp that we would purchase into the facility,” Thiry told commissioners. “But our products ultimately are sold to other people that would convert them into the individual napkins, towels and bathroom tissue that you would typically find in restaurants, hotels, schools (and) arenas.”

Despite enduring a tough pandemic, the company is ready to make Duluth the “next step in its evolution.”

“We are confident in the marketplace,” Thiry said. “We were also able to learn how to develop products that found their way into the at-home market. Based on that, we’re taking this bold step forward to repurpose the facility in Duluth and start the next chapter in that facility’s life.”

The county and city’s abatement efforts are only a portion of the relief being made available to reopen the mill, which will come with a $54 million price tag. Commissioners described it as an investment, one that will pay dividends.

“I absolutely agree that it’s an investment in our community and our families and keeps us on track,” said Commissioner Ashley Grimm, who represents western Duluth, where the mill is located.

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Ashley Grimm

In addition to that financial layout, the County Board approved just under $360,000 for DSGW Architects of Duluth and Virginia for site selection and design of the $7.1 million regional response to mental health known as Clarity Center for Wellbeing.

The state has already approved $5 million in bonding money for a project expected to create a better regional response to mental health. The Clarity project has been several years in the making, developed by a group including the county along with Essentia Health, St. Luke's hospital, Duluth Public Schools, nonprofits and the jail system.

“As we come out of this pandemic, we are going to see more and more mental health issues throughout our area, and this is one step in accomplishing our goal of having services locally,” said Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely.

Paul McDonald
Paul McDonald

Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, said he expected site plans to come together by fall, and be ready for further board approval.

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He noted the county's expanding response to mental health, including the Birchwood supportive housing project opening this fall next door to Birchtree Center located near the Miller Hill Mall, which provides mental health crisis stabilization services.

“I’m excited about this,” Boyle said about the Clarity project. “It’s just another piece of the puzzle to help out with mental health.”

This story was edited at 5:22 p.m. to correct the location of the Grand Lake Town Hall. It was originally posted at 4:28 p.m.

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