RHINELANDER — Richard Johns can’t imagine his city without the paper mill.
The sprawling plant at the south side of Boom Lake provided Johns and thousands of other workers with solid wages over the years and is a centerpiece of the community’s industrial base.
The money earned from the mill sends children to college, pays off mortgages and provides for boats, snowmobiles and vacations. Trickle-down economics means more business for flower shops, marinas, taverns, restaurants, insurance agents, banks and car dealerships.
“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, but there is concern here that this city of 7,800, known for its mythical Hodag, could go the way of Port Edwards, Kimberly, Neenah, Ashland and most recently, in 2012, Brokaw.
And that would be bad. Hundreds of jobs would be lost, lives disrupted and economies toppled.
All of those communities have lost their paper mills as the industry contracts under market pressures that include stockholders and 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, there have been no takers.
In addition, the company’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 40-year-old founder, says the board did not fully evaluate the sale of the three mills compared to 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.
But that’s between New York and the main office at 100 Paper Place in Mosinee.
Regardless of the decision, the biggest impact will likely be felt, as in most corporate battles, by the worker bees.
In Rhinelander, some of the 447 employees drive Chevy Silvarados purchased at Rhinelander GM Auto Center, play softball at Hodag Park and take part in a Wednesday night prayer and Bible study at Northwoods Baptist Church.
Life here also includes Friday night fish fries and morning coffee at the Rhinelander Cafe & Pub. The business, founded in 1911, is almost as old as the mill.
“I think people are scared,” said Mark Gutteter, who bought the downtown business in 2001. “It’s a lot of jobs but there‘s nothing anyone can do.”
Rhinelander is a city that, like Eagle River, Hayward and Tomahawk, is synonymous with the North Woods. Some come here to hunt deer in the fall and snowmobile in the winter but most come during the warmer months when they fight off the mosquitoes to fish, swim and water ski. In July, they don their cowboy hats for the four-day Hodag Country (music) Festival.
Originally known as Pelican Rapids, Rhinelander was founded in 1882 because of its wealth of trees and the Wisconsin River. That led to lumber mills and, in 1903, the Rhinelander Paper Co. The lumber mills would disappear but paper and pulp production would continue and at its peak employ 1,100 people.
The mill’s societal effect has been well preserved at the Rhinelander Historical Society Museum where June Thiel is the curator. She grew up here and her father worked at the mill, walking home each day for lunch at the sound of the noon whistle.
During a tour of the museum house, built in 1894 as a boarding house, Thiel pulled out copies of the Ripco Ripples, a monthly magazine distributed to employees. She also showed off the bass drum from the paper mill band, baseball caps, plates and historical photos and paintings all related to the mill.
“It stands there kind of big,” Thiel, 81, said of the mill. “The structure can be seen from a lot of places” — including the council chambers at City Hall.
The room features a mural that depicts the city’s history, including its role in the timber and paper industries.
Mayor Johns and Blaine Oborn, the city’s administrator, are trying to take a glass half-full approach to the unpredictable situation because of two primary tangibles. In the last 10 years, Wausau Paper has invested $47 million in improvements to the mill. There’s also the local workforce that persuaded, in part, Printpack, another Rhinelander company, to reject a move to Georgia and build a $72 million plant on Highway 17 to make specialized packaging, much of it for the food industry.
Oborn says the mill has too much going for it to close, regardless of the decisions made in the board rooms.
“We know it’s a major part of the community and we’ll continue to promote them as best we can,” Oborn said. “We’re confident that mill will continue to operate.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.