A massive, empty paper mill in Brainerd, Minn., is about to get a makeover.
If a new owner’s plan plays out, the mill that once operated under Potlatch Corp. and Wausau Paper will become an industrial center, housing a host of companies on the north end of town.
“This is absolutely the best thing I can remember happening in Brainerd in the last 20 years,” said Mayor James Wallin.
For decades, Potlatch ran the mill. It closed the site in 2002, laying off more than 600 workers. A few years later, Wausau Paper came along, eventually closing the mill’s doors in April 2013.
It looked like Liberty Paper Co. would buy the site in October, but the company backed out. Then there was Renu Recycling, which planned to scrap the equipment and raze the buildings. But because of restrictions on the permit, Renu backed out, too.
The site sat empty.
Then, “all of a sudden, out of the blue,” Mike Higgins came forward with the Brainerd Industrial Center, Wallin said.
Higgins, of Mount Pleasant, Mich., had been involved in converting the closed Simplicity paper mill in Niles, Mich., into warehouse and storage space. They leased it quickly, Higgins said by phone. “We knew we were onto something, converting these industrial buildings.”
Higgins was looking to buy an old building himself when he heard that the Wausau Paper mill was up for sale. He toured it more than a month ago and found it to be “so clean,” he said, compared with other industrial sites he had visited in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.
The Wausau Paper property was mowed and trimmed, he said. The buildings were well-built and strong. “I couldn’t believe that anybody was talking about tearing it down,” Higgins said.
After closing on the property last week, Higgins introduced himself at the City Council meeting Monday as the CEO of Brainerd Industrial Center. He wore a gray polo shirt with the company’s new logo. He declined to share the purchase price.
The sale did not include the nearby hydroelectric dam, which Wausau Paper had also owned. The city of Brainerd faced some criticism when it recently bought the dam with the hopes of using more renewable energy and keeping electric rates down.
The paper mill includes 400,000 square feet on the main floor and 250,000 square feet of basement space. Higgins hopes to have the first 100,000 square feet ready to lease in two or three months, he said.
He doesn’t have a particular type of company in mind, he said. “We’re open to anything at all.”
Wallin hopes the center becomes a kind of incubator, providing space for small, start-up companies. He compared it to the conversion of the Northern Pacific Center, also in Brainerd, which rents office and warehouse space to a variety of companies.
That center recently began booking some of its picturesque, brick space for wedding receptions and other large gatherings, said owner David Hutton. “Bookings look real good for next year,” he said.
In the summer, about 45 percent of the Northern Pacific Center’s space is leased. In the winter, it’s nearly full, thanks to boat storage.
The largest spaces are the toughest to rent, Hutton noted, so he’s unsure of what demand exists. “If there was a need, in my opinion we would have seen them by now.”