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Boise job cuts are bad news for International Falls
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The Boise paper mill is the largest employer in International Falls. But the company has lost more than 250 jobs in the past four years. Community leaders worry the latest round of job cuts will have a ripple effect on the already fragile local economy. (MPR photo/Tom Robertson)
Sixty-four people lost their jobs this month at the Boise paper mill in International Falls. About half of them were let go just this week. The cuts are part of a restructuring at the Boise mill, which is the largest employer in International Falls. The loss of jobs is a major blow to the town's fragile economy. Community leaders are now trying to figure out what to do next.

International Falls, Minn. — The Boise paper mill has lost more than 250 jobs in the past four years. And as the plant downsizes, so does the community. The 2000 census showed Koochiching County's population dropped 12 percent, the biggest loss of any county in the state. The population of International Falls fell 20 percent in the same period.

So when Boise announced this latest round of job cuts, the news made Paul Nevanen nervous. Nevanen is director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority, an organization that has tried desperately to diversify the region's economy.

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Image Paul Nevanen

"It's very, very difficult to find a job to replace the kinds of jobs, the wages and the benefit packages that a Boise can offer," said Nevanen. "Just very difficult to do that."

Nevanen says people are relieved at least that the job loss wasn't higher.

"But at the same time, it's friends and neighbors, relatives, people that have families, that now, okay, you start the next phase," said Nevanen. "It's 'what do we do? What are our options? Can we stay in this community?' That's the biggest concern that I have is, we can't afford to lose another family from this area."

But the bad news may not be over. Boise Cascade plans to sell all of its timberland -- some 2.2 million acres nationwide -- to a Boston investment firm. That includes 309,000 acres in Minnesota, most of which is located in Koochiching County.

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Image Shawn Mason

Boise currently employs 17 people to manage those forests. Company officials say some of those jobs will likely be cut when the sale is finalized early next year.

The economic pie is small in International Falls. Job losses at the Boise mill affect businesses up and down Main Street. Shawn Mason is mayor-elect of the town. She plans to convene an economic summit in International Falls in February. Mason says the town needs help.

"It really sends a signal to our state Legislature that communities like International Falls need some extra special attention to help create an environment that is friendly for business," said Mason.

Some of the people who lost their jobs at Boise are angry. Bob Walls is a Boise employee and a union representative. Walls says there's plenty of work at the mill. But he accuses Boise officials of making up for lost workers by forcing some employees to work more hours.

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Image Bob Walls

"These people are upset," said Walls. "We're running overtime in that mill. People are working 20, 30 days in a row. And yet they're laying people off. It doesn't make any sense."

Boise officials say about five percent of the mill's work hours are logged as overtime. They say that's about the same as their other plants across the country. Bob Walls says the local unions will do everything in their power to get at least some of the jobs restored.

"We're laying it out on the line," Walls said. "We're tired of big companies pushing us around. Everybody's looking at that, you know, trying to make that buck. Where's the morals, where's the ethics of these big companies. We're a small community. We have, what, 6,500 people that live here now. It wasn't that long ago that we had over 10,000."

Boise officials say the cuts are necessary for the company to stay competitive in the global paper products market. Bob Anderson, Boise's public affairs manager, says the effects of downsizing on the local economy are unfortunate.

"I think that you will see a fair number of those folks move on," said Anderson. "They will take their skills and, right now we have the good fortune that the mines are doing some heavy hiring. We've heard that some of our employees have already been called to interview up at Silver Bay."

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Image Bob Anderson

Local union officials plan to file contract grievances against the Boise paper mill. They're also contacting lawmakers to see if anything can be done about the job cuts. Meanwhile, state employment officials will be in International Falls next week to discuss retraining options and other assistance for the displaced workers.

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