SARTELL, MINN. - The gates to the paper mill that started operating here on the east bank of the Mississippi River in 1907 were chained shut Friday, and weeds grew in cracks of the barren asphalt parking lot.

"That lot used to be full of cars all the time," said Jessica Fuchs, 30, whose two uncles worked at the mill for decades, until a devastating explosion and fire on Memorial Day. The disaster killed one worker, injured four and forced the mill to close.

Now the town is reeling from a second disaster: Verso Paper Corporation's decision that, because of a poor paper market, it won't reopen the mill that has been here longer than the town itself.

The remaining 250 employees won't be going back to work, and the central-Minnesota town of 14,259 people will lose its biggest taxpayer.

"We grieved the loss of life at that mill -- that was painful -- and now we grieve the loss of those jobs," Sartell Mayor Joe Perske said Friday after meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and other elected officials, who rushed to the town just north of St. Cloud to offer their support.

"This is a very hard time, very painful," Dayton said at a news conference afterward. "A lot of good Minnesotans who worked hard and did everything right have been dealt a very bad hand."

Dayton and Klobuchar pledged to help workers get unemployment benefits and retraining assistance and to help city leaders find a buyer for the mill, a new use for it, or both. Dayton also said he might propose aid to repair the facility during the Legislature's upcoming special session to consider state disaster aid.

Klobuchar said the laid-off workers are eligible for 26 weeks of unemployment assistance which, when combined with their union-negotiated severance, should give them a "year cushion" of steady income while they retrain and look for other work.

"This was a surprise to so many of us who were holding out hope we could get this mill reopened," said Klobuchar, a Democrat.

Workers said they appreciated the support but were less than optimistic about finding comparable work. Mill jobs paid an average of $25.62 an hour.

"The trouble is, most of the guys in there were older -- a lot of them in their 50s," said Dale Dirks, a 33-year employee who maintained instrument panels on the paper-making equipment and served as vice president of the workers' union, United Steelworkers Local 274.

"My dad worked there; my grandpa worked there," Dirks said. "What can we do? We'll have to go out and find other jobs. But there's not a lot of industry around here anymore - so much of it has gone overseas."

Long rise and fall

The mill -- founded in 1907 as Watab Pulp & Paper and named after a local tributary to the Mississippi -- was an economic mainstay in its region for more than a century. A railroad line ran into it, and it had its own hydroelectric plant.

It's had five different owners and names through the years, and underwent a major expansion as St. Regis paper company in 1982, gaining a third paper machine. As late as 2009 it had 500 workers. But the company pared its workforce as the market for its coated paper declined. In 2011, it shut down its two older paper machines and laid off 175 workers.

Mayor Perske called the Memorial Day explosion "one of the most horrific events in the city's history." It killed worker Jon Maus, 50, and injured four others.

"I was 10 miles away, in Rice, and you could hear the boom and see the black smoke rising," said Mary Beth Walz, 29, a cashier at the Benton Drive Mini-Serve, across the street from the idled mill.

The fire burned for five days and did millions in damage to the newest parts of the machinery and mill buildings.

Flagging demand

David Patterson, CEO of the Memphis-based paper maker, told Dayton and other officials this week that the double-whammy of the extensive damage and flagging paper market made it unfeasible to reopen, even if the state offered help in repairing the damage.

"We hoped the outcome would be different, that there would be a rebuild, but with the realities of that industry, we respected the company's determination that it was not possible," said Patti Gartland, Sartell's city administrator.

Klobuchar said the mill property has "great virtues," such as the hydroelectric plant, which should help attract another buyer. She and Dayton noted that some of Minnesota's five remaining paper mills have come back from bad times with new owners.

Whether that could occur in Sartell in time to help Jerome Borash remains to be seen. He's 57 and worked in the mill 30 years, most recently as a "coating prep operator."

He has a wife and eight grown children, including some who still live at home.

"I was glad to get a job there after being laid off 30 years ago from the railroad," he said. "I can't retire for a few years yet. I guess I'll try to get some retraining and look for something else."

Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751