Blandin paper mill lays off 150 in Grand Rapids

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GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — About 150 people will lose their jobs at the Blandin mill in Grand Rapids as owner UPM Paper said Tuesday, Oct. 24, it is closing one of its paper machines.

Finland-based UPM said in a news release that it will "permanently close paper machine 5 at UPM Blandin ... reducing the annual capacity by approximately 128,000 tons of coated magazine paper in response to overcapacities in the North American paper market."

Grand Rapids Mayor Dale Adams said the closure came as a surprise.

"From a city standpoint, it's never easy to absorb the potential loss of 150 jobs in what has been a pillar of the community," he said. "It was unexpected and will be hard on the community for a while, but we do have a diversified business community, and we'll have to work hard to try to find new positions and jobs and get businesses to look at Grand Rapids as a place to start."

Blandin mill officials in Grand Rapids did not offer further comment.

The machine closure is slated to be complete by March at the latest, UPM said. The last of Blandin's paper machines, No. 6, will continue producing coated paper used in magazines.

As of Monday, the mill had employed about 400 people.

The Blandin mill was built in 1902, and in 1977 it was sold to Fletcher Challenge Canada. UPM bought Blandin Paper Co. in 1997.

UPM shut down two of Blandin's four paper machines in 2003 and laid off 300 people. As elsewhere in the paper industry, jobs have slowly disappeared in the years since as demand for paper diminishes in an increasingly digital world.

The Finnish company has 15 mills and 8,000 employees worldwide; UPM is laying off an additional 220 people at a German operation as it seeks to head off a decline in its paper business.

"Our employees have always given their best, even under challenging market conditions, and we regret the impact of the planned measures on our personnel in Dörpen and Blandin," said UPM Executive Vice president Winifried Schaur in Tuesday's release. "However, we have to adjust our operations to prospective customer demand and continuously improve our operations to safeguard the success of UPM Paper in the long run."

Meanwhile, UPM on Tuesday reported in a financial report it has seen "consistent and continued improvement in profitability and financial standing for several years," though the paper operations have not.

Itasca County had an unemployment rate of 5 percent in September, according to the Department of Employment and Economic Development. That's the lowest the jobless rate had been since 2006, save for one month in 2014. The mill layoffs, coupled with seasonal jobs coming to a close, will likely increase that rate and add more competition for jobs in an area that often has far more unemployment than other parts of the state.

Mayor Adams said he hoped UPM's ongoing ventures into biorefining — turning timber into chemicals, composites and fuels — will include Grand Rapids.

"We need to find something in the wood industry," he said.

Affected workers can reach out to the Grand Rapids WorkForce Center, DEED spokesman Shane Delaney said. The agency has contacted the mill to see how it can assist those laid off through its Rapid Response Team.

"If there are any employees who think they may be impacted or will be impacted and are interested in receiving dislocated worker services — if there are a large number then we would help them all through a project — but if anyone would like to get services on their own or see what's available, the WorkForce Center is the best bet," he said.

The Blandin Foundation, by far the region's largest charitable foundation, is independent of mill operations.