Updated: 02/17/2013 3:23 PM KSTP.com By: Kaitlin Stevens
Rhinelander could be the next Wisconsin community to lose its paper mill.
The sprawling Wausau Paper plant on Boom Lake has provided Richard Johns and thousands of other workers with solid wages over the years and is a centerpiece of Rhinelander's industrial base.
"It's a tremendous asset to the community," said Johns, the city's mayor, who spent 40 years in maintenance at the mill. "It's always been a viable source of income for our area."
Johns is keeping a positive attitude, the Wisconsin State Journal reported Sunday, but there's concern that the northern Wisconsin city of 7,800 could go the way of Port Edwards, Kimberly, Neenah, Ashland and most recently, in 2012, Brokaw. All of those Wisconsin communities have lost their paper mills as the industry contracts under market pressures that include cheaper products from China.
Mosinee-based Wausau Paper announced last month that it is putting its mills up for sale in Rhinelander, Mosinee and Brainerd, Minn. So far, the newspaper reported, there have been no takers.
At the same time, Wausau Paper's largest shareholder, Starboard Value LP, a New York investment firm, is unhappy with the decisions of the current board of directors and plans to nominate three people to the board in April. In a letter to Thomas Howatt, chairman of the board of Wausau Paper, Jeffrey Smith, Starboard's founder, says the board did not fully evaluate the sale of the three mills compared with the sale of the entire company.
"Any sincere plan to maximize value for the company needs to include a holistic review of all strategic alternatives," Smith wrote.
That dispute is between the investment firm and the corporate headquarters in Mosinee, but the outcome could reverberate in Rhinelander, where wages paid by the mill send children to college, pay off mortgages and help workers buy boats and snowmobiles and take vacations. The money also means business for flower shops, marinas, taverns, restaurants, insurance agents, banks and car dealerships.
"I think people are scared," said Mark Gutteter, who bought the Rhinelander Cafe & Pub in 2001. The downtown business, founded in 1911, is almost as old as the mill. "It's a lot of jobs but there's nothing anyone can do."
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