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Our View: Good news on jobs in Northland, Duluth — times two

From the editorial: "The good news is more remarkable given the stagnant jobs situation nationally."

Sign on outside of building.
ST Paper is now up and running in the former Verso Corp. building in Duluth on Thursday morning, Feb. 16, 2023.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Good news about jobs doesn't often come in waves. Not in the Northland and in Duluth and especially not since the industrial collapse of the 1970s and 80s.

But news broke this week that Cleveland-Cliffs had begun calling back hundreds of laid-off Northshore Mining workers and that its pellet plant in Silver Bay and mine in Babbitt were expected to reopen by April (no fooling). Both facilities have been idle for nearly a year over a royalties dispute and as the use of scrap metal in electric arc furnaces reduced the need for its pellets.

The coming reopening was revealed — and, appropriately, celebrated — by Minnesota politicians who fell over themselves to trumpet their roles.

“After meeting (in December) with miners impacted by the Silver Bay plant and Babbitt mine idling, working with local northern Minnesota legislators to push for the extension of state unemployment benefits, and most recently, meeting in Washington with Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves about reopening, I’m glad mining operations will be reopening in Babbitt and Silver Bay and the miners will be returning to work,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, said in a statement Monday.

Also in a statement, Gov. Tim Walz said, “Last month, we extended unemployment insurance for hundreds of workers — a critical bridge for workers waiting for today’s news. I’m relieved to learn that the collaboration between state and local leaders has paid off and that the Iron Range families who depend on these jobs can rest easy knowing that they’re heading back to work. … This is a win for Silver Bay, Northeastern Minnesota, and the state as a whole.”

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State Sen. Grant Hauschild, DFL-Hermantown, announced that he also had been in communication with Cleveland-Cliffs and could verify that the first of the 400 of 580 laid-off Northshore employees were beginning to be called back.

“I’m encouraged that Cleveland-Cliffs is beginning the process to reopen their facilities,” Hauschild stated. “In recent months, I’ve held several meetings with Cleveland-Cliffs to discuss the importance of reopening these plants as soon as possible. These mines and jobs are critical to our regional economy. I heard from numerous miners who were impacted by this closure who said they wanted to get back to work. While we were able to get them a bridge in unemployment insurance benefits until April with my recent bill, my primary goal has always been to reopen these two plants. I’m glad to say that we’re one step closer to making that happen.”

The good news about Cleveland-Cliffs and Northshore came on the heels of another good-news story. The News Tribune reported last week that the paper mill in West Duluth was up and running again, with ST Paper producing commercial bath tissue, paper towels, and napkins.

The former Verso Corp. mill had been closed since the summer of 2020. ST Paper of Wisconsin bought it, converted it, and reopened it with considerable assistance from the city of Duluth, Duluth Economic Development Authority, the Minnesota Legislature, Comfort Systems, St. Louis County, the Minnesota Investment Fund, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and its Job Creation Fund, and others. The public financing totaled at least $8.7 million — in exchange for keeping going a major industrial operation in the city of Duluth, the promise of at least 80 good-paying jobs here, and an expected private investment by ST Paper of $25 million.

The deal, as a News Tribune editorial in September 2021 first called it, remains a “jobs-supporting, community fortunes-bolstering success that (came) from true bipartisanship and public-private cooperation.” Smoke spewing once again from the reopened mill is a constant and welcome reminder as well as a relief.

The good news about jobs helps soften the blow of a federal mining moratorium in far Northeastern Minnesota and the announcement earlier this month that Huber Engineered Woods of Charlotte, North Carolina, has abandoned plans to build a nearly half-billion-dollar plant in Cohasset to produce oriented strand board, or OSB, used for constructing homes.

The good news is more remarkable given the stagnant jobs situation nationally. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Feb. 3 that “both the unemployment rate, at 3.4 percent, and the number of unemployed persons, at 5.7 million, changed little in January.” Even more discouraging, “The unemployment rate has shown little net movement since early 2022.”

Here’s hoping the more recent good news about jobs in Duluth and the Northland leads to more such good news as we and the rest of the world continue to weather record recession and to recover from the economic blows wrought by COVID-19. And here’s encouragement that we celebrate positive employment developments each time they happen, whether in waves or not.

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