WJON In Depth – What’s Next: Sartell’s Future Without the Verso Paper Plant [VIDEO]
SARTELL -- It's a day thousands will never forget. A community forever changed after a devastating incident Memorial Day 2012.
"I think everyone remembers when they heard about the explosion," says former Verso Paper Mill employee Dennis Molitor.
Four years ago, May 28th 2012, an explosion and devastating fire destroyed the Sartell Verso Paper Mill, leaving one dead and injuring several others.
The plume of smoke could be seen from every direction, leaving many wondering what was going on.
Former Sartell City Administrator Patti Gartland was heading home from the cabin when she spotted the smoke from the highway and quickly found out what happened.
"A few minutes later my phone rings and it's our police chief saying we have an emergency situation," says Gartland.
The mills destruction was a turning point for the community, emotionally, mentally and financially. Especially for the 260 highly paid employees who lost their jobs.
Luke Benzkofer worked at the mill for almost a decade. He says many employees felt hopeless.
"For a lot of people they were sitting there and they literally had the rug pulled out from underneath them," says Benzkofer. "We were all like...now what?"
"Not to many people were able to find similar paying jobs if they weren't willing to relocate to a different city," says Molitor.
But, there was a silver lining for a majority of employees who didn't retire after the mill closed. With the help of the Stearns-Benton Employment and Training Council about 235 employees found a new place to work.
"The workforce pretty much did everything they could to help you find a job," says Benzkofer.
Since the mills destruction property taxes have taken a hit and the city has worked hard to bounce back from a substantial economic loss.
Sartell Planning and Community Development Director Anita Rasmussen says before the explosion plans were already in the works on how to spread out the city's tax base, through new business, land development and increased housing values.
"Though the mills loss was a $1-million dollar hit for the city, from a lot of perspectives we've been able to absorb that hit very well considering the circumstances," says Rasmussen.
Today, the iconic building spanning the Sartell skyline has been reduced to an empty plat. Leaving many wondering, what will happen next?
"We don't want to see it sitting in this state any longer than it has too," says Gartland.
But, development on the site won't happen for a least a year. That's because the city council passed a moratorium to force the developer to talk to the city about their plans for the site.
"We need to know what are those regulatory controls, or zoning ordinances we should have in place to make sure we develop and implement a vision we want to see here in the long term," says Rasmussen.
AIM Development currently owns the property. In a statement Vice President Jeff McGlin says 'AIM Development finished up the demolition scope of work early this spring. We are now finalizing a summary of the site attributes that lend itself to a successful redevelopment plan. We plan to have redevelopment thoughts and plans later this summer.'
Rasmussen says to assist in the process a task force will be created to have all parties on the same page.
"We want to get as many perspectives and input on what the community feels development of the site should be," says Rasmussen.
Through everything that's happened the last four years, Sartell Mayor Sarah Jane Nicoll says the community is ready to start a new chapter in their story.
"We've become our own city of very active individuals with all kinds of career opportunities and it continues to grow everyday. We are really taking on our own identity," says Nicoll.
But, as the pages turn, a group of residents continue to honor the mills memory through several art projects stationed around the city. To make sure generations to come will know the pieces of the past that helped lay the foundation for the future.
"I anticipate a lot of folks are going to make sure that history gets captured in a lot of different ways," says Gartland.
"The mill was a big player and hopefully it will never be forgotten," says Molitor.
Videographer Chrissy Gaetke, The Stearns History Museum, and the Stearns-Benton Employment and Training Council contributed to this story.