From its beginning, the paper mill along our western riverfront has been a public-private venture with a goal of bolstering the fortunes of Duluth and Minnesota. The mill’s opening in 1987 meant new industry, new jobs, and renewed hope at a time when U.S. Steel and then the Duluth Air Base, Clyde Iron, Jeno’s, and so much else all had closed, plummeting Duluth into dark days of economic doldrums. This was around the time when that infamous billboard went up along I-35 on the way out of town: “Will the last one leaving Duluth please turn out the lights?”
The construction of the paper mill in West Duluth happened only because of public and private investment, cooperation, bipartisanship, and teamwork. The mill “symbolized a newfound resilience in Duluth, our refusal to give up or give in — even when a Twin Cities newspaper said we were ‘dying’,” a News Tribune editorial opined in January 2020.
We’re emerging from dark days once again, this time because of a virus and a pandemic that just won’t ease its grip and that has devastated our economy anew.
And another public-private venture, with the paper mill at its heart, is being worked on to improve the fortunes of Duluthians and Minnesotans once again — just like three and a half decades ago.
Old-fashioned bipartisan support is needed to make reality a $3 million forgivable loan from the state and $1.5 million in state job-creation funds so that ST Paper can convert Duluth’s mill — shuttered last summer after demand dwindled for the “supercalendered graphic paper” it was producing — to start producing bathroom tissue, the market for which is always strong.
ST has been in negotiations to purchase and reopen the West Duluth mill for months. With the public financing from the state, it said it will invest $25 million for renovations, similar to other mill overhauls it has completed successfully elsewhere, and will employ at least 80 workers here at upwards of $50,000 a year plus benefits.
Recognizing the promise of a strong payback on investment — and also the chance to revitalize and restart what has been a major industry for our city — the Duluth City Council last week voted unanimously to back ST’s request to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development for the $1.5 million in job-creation funds.
The department can also recognize this good deal and its benefits to Duluth and the state. So can lawmakers, with funding for the forgivable loan in omnibus bills now under their consideration. The $3 million would be forgiven when ST Paper follows through on its plans, including employing at least 80 workers for five years.
"We believe we are on the threshold of moving forward with our project," ST Paper Senior Vice President Ron Thiry said in a News Tribune story. "We know this facility has undergone considerable ownership changes over the years, and we're hoping with our project that it will no longer be at the whim of digital and technological changes, because bathroom tissue should be around for a long time."
Duluth's paper mill can be around for a long time, too. Another public-private partnership stands to bolster fortunes from the shores of the St. Louis River, helping pull Duluth and the state of Minnesota out of this latest economic downturn.