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Contraction and adjustment for the Fox River Valley's paper industry

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APPLETON — The Atlas Paper Co. mill was constructed a year before Thomas Edison created the first commercially viable incandescent light bulb.

Located along the Fox River just a few blocks from Lawrence University and near a portage used by fur trappers decades earlier, the mill was the creation of the founders of Kimberly, Clark & Co. and investors from Minnesota. It has evolved since the first day it began making paper in 1878.

Early products cranked out by its two machines and 30 employees included wallpaper. Later, the mill turned pulp from stands of Northwoods timber into fine writing paper. It produced wax paper that could hold color printing for frozen vegetable boxes and, when the plant was converted to a research and development facility in 1956, it created KAYCEL, material used for hospital gowns and bibs for dental patients.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

Early products cranked out by the two machines at Atlas Paper Co. in Appleton included wallpaper. Later, the mill made fine writing paper and wax paper for frozen vegetable boxes. When Kimberly-Clark converted the mill to a research and development facility in 1956, it created KAYCEL, material used for hospital gowns and bibs for dental patients. Michael Breza, lead educator and historian at the Paper Discovery Center, located in the former mill, holds up a pair of medical pants likely made at the plant but now stored in the center's archives.

The 52,000-square-foot mill, once a major part of the life-blood of this Outagamie County city, closed in 2000 but in 2005 was redeveloped into the Paper Discovery Center, an educational hub, library, archive and home of the Paper Industry International Hall of Fame.

Transformation of this legacy industry continues. And with it comes job losses, uncertainty, the shutting of mills, the changing of lives and in some cases reuse and redevelopment.

“There are drifts and movements in society. It’s industry, and it’s people and it’s political that things move around,” said Michael Breza, lead educator and historian at the Paper Discovery Center. “I don’t like it when anyone is losing their job. I’m a better historian than futurist so I can’t tell you what’s going to happen. I wish I could.”

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

The Paper Discovery Center is located in the former Atlas Paper Co. mill on the banks of the Fox River in Appleton. It's main floor had been home to massive paper making machines but hosts interactive exhibits and displays about the paper industry. Wisconsin leads the state in paper production but the vast majority of the products are for packaging, tissue products and specialized paper. 

The contraction of the industry has been pronounced. In the late 1990s, there were about 51,000 pulp and paper jobs in Wisconsin. By 2017, there were about 30,600 jobs, according to figures from the state Department of Workforce Development. Those numbers continue to decline with the Fox River Valley bearing the brunt of the most recent changes.

In August, Appleton Coated in Combined Locks filed for receivership, closed, was sold and has restarted some manufacturing but only about 150 of the company’s 620 employees have been called back, according to Tom Nelson, Outagamie County executive. Appleton-based Appvion, which makes labels and receipt paper among other products, is in bankruptcy, cutting 200 jobs, and employee-owned shares of company stock are virtually worthless.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

Kimberly-Clark's nonwoven facility in Neenah supplies components for the company's Cold Spring plant in Fox Crossing that makes Depend adult diapers. Both facilities could close under plans by Kimberly-Clark which would eliminate about 600 jobs from the Fox River Valley.

In January, Kimberly-Clark, founded in 1870 in Neenah but now based in Dallas, Texas, announced it would cut as many as 5,500 jobs worldwide, which is about 13 percent of its workforce. Less than two weeks later it got more specific and announced plans to eliminate about 600 jobs in the Fox River Valley. The company announced it will shutter its Cold Spring plant in the village of Fox Crossing (formerly the town of Menasha) that makes Depend adult diapers. Its nonwoven facility in Neenah that supplies components to the Cold Spring plant is also slated to close.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

Kimberly-Clark's Cold Spring Plant in the village of Fox Crossing, formerly the town of Menasha, was built in the early 1990s but its 500 employees could be out their jobs after the Dallas-based company announced cutbacks.

Early Thursday, the state Assembly approved a Foxconn-like deal that allows Kimberly-Clark to claim tax credits for 17 percent of eligible payroll costs in exchange for retaining jobs in the state. The bill, which still needs to pass the state Senate, has been criticized by Democrats and a coalition of conservative groups who say the bill is not sound economic policy and sets “an unsustainable” precedent for economic development. Kimberly-Clark officials said prior to the Assembly’s vote that “there are numerous factors” that lead to closings but that they will consider the state’s proposal.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

The Outagamie County Courthouse was built in 1940 and 1941. This mural in the lobby includes depictions of paper making, lower left.

Nelson, a Democrat, whose office is on the fourth floor of the Outagamie County Courthouse where part of a mural in the lobby depicts paper-making, said the area has not been immune from job losses in the paper industry over the past 20 years but the latest rounds of cuts and proposed closings were overshadowed by the Foxconn negotiations in southeastern Wisconsin.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

Tom Nelson, Outagamie County Executive, believes the state has been lax in reacting to job losses in the Fox River Valley. The former Democratic assemblyman grew up in the region where his father was a minister.

“Why did it take five months and five plants and 1,400 jobs to get the attention of state leaders?” asked Nelson, “We’ve been ringing the five-alarm bell for five months.”

In 2008, mills in Port Edwards, Niagara and Kimberly were shuttered, while in 2012 the small community of Brokaw, just north of Wausau, saw its mill close after 110 years. It put 450 people out of work and the village in financial straits. Many mills that haven’t closed have downsized.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

An exhibit at the Paper Discovery Center shows what was used prior to toilet paper. From top to bottom the items are a corn cob, lace, coconut shells, wool cloth and the frayed end of an anchor rope.

The state, which leads the nation in paper production, is home to about 35 pulp, paper and paperboard mills, most clustered along the Fox and Wisconsin rivers. The industry accounts for about $2.4 billion in wages and $14.3 billion in products, according to data from the American Forest & Paper Association. Commodity grade papers like those used for writing and printing are no longer the norm. About 90 percent of the products produced in the state consist of tissue, packaging and specialty paper, said Jeff Landin, president of the Wisconsin Paper Council, a lobbying organization founded in Appleton but which moved to Madison last summer.

“The state of the paper industry in Wisconsin is evolving but it’s evolving in a way that, long term, I believe will put us in a fairly strong position,” Landin said. “We’re taking a serious look as to what’s causing the (Kimberly-Clark) decision and what’s impacting other producers in Wisconsin.”

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

The smoke stack of the former Fox River Paper Co. is now owned by Neenah Paper, a company founded in 1873 in Neenah but now based in Alpharetta, Georgia.

Those issues could include energy and labor costs, taxes and regulatory concerns, Landin said.

But redevelopment and the reuse of paper-making facilities is happening here.

Fox Crossing is home to several paper companies including Clearwater Paper Corp. and ProAmPac, both housed in former Kimberly-Clark facilities. The village is also home to SCA Tissue and Great Northern Corp. Secura Insurance, now located in downtown Appleton, is building a $90 million, 300,000-square-foot headquarters just north of the Fox Crossing village hall. The village has three tax incremental finance districts, and a $400 million rebuild of the Highway 10 intersection at Interstate 41 is scheduled to be completed this fall. Kimberly-Clark’s Cold Spring facility is just over 25 years old and would be an ideal location for another company if state incentives don’t change the mind of Kimberly-Clark leadership.

“We’ve been diversifying dramatically,” said George Dearborn, Fox Crossing’s longtime community development director. “The economy here is very strong.”

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

Michael Breza, lead educator and historian at the Paper Discovery Center in Appleton, pages through a ledger from the defunct Gilbert Paper Co. which specialized in making paper for currency for countries around the world. The ledger is part of the Paper Discovery Center's library and archives, located in the lower level of the former Atlas Paper Co. mill that later became part of the Kimberly-Clark Corp. 

One of the largest redevelopment projects underway in the Fox River Valley is happening in Kimberly, where in 2008 NewPage shuttered its mill that was established by Kimberly-Clark in 1889, annually produced 500,000 tons of coated freesheet paper and employed 600 people. Last week, a fleet of excavators and dump trucks worked to remove remnants of the mill. One home is nearing completion and once the 90-acre project is finished it will include several other houses, apartments, restaurants and parkland with views of the river.

Back in Appleton, other former paper mills have been converted to apartments, while the Fox River Paper Co.’s smoke stack across the river is now owned by Neenah Paper, a company founded in 1873 in Neenah but now based in Alpharetta, Georgia.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

One of the reminders of the Fox River Valley's success in paper making can be seen in some of its historic homes. These homes are located on East Wisconsin Avenue across from Riverside Park and were built by three of the four co-founders of Kimberly-Clark. From left, they are the former homes of Charles B. Clark, Frank C. Shattuck, and Havilah Babcock. The former home of the fourth co-founder, John Kimberly, is located about a block away.

In Neenah, a park in the city’s downtown pays homage to the region’s history with granite pillars noting the contributions of John A. Kimberly, Charles B. Clark, Frank C. Shattuck, and Kimberly’s cousin, Havilah Babcock, all of whom helped found what would become Kimberly-Clark. Their massive, now historic homes are just blocks away on East Wisconsin Avenue across from Riverside Park.

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Fox River Valley paper industry evolves

A historical display on the region's paper making industry is located just south of the Appleton Coated mill in Combined Locks.

For Maria Costello, executive director of the Paper Discovery Center, where children can make paper in a hands-on laboratory, climb through a replica of a paper machine, and get a close look at a 200-pound roll of toilet paper, the last five months have been turbulent.

“Almost everybody that’s from this area, they’re all tied into the paper industry,” said Costello, who moved to the region in 1988 when her then-husband took a job with Kimberly-Clark to work in its aviation division, Midwest Express.

“People have a really hard time adapting to change and when something is such a huge part of a community it makes it that much tougher.”

Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at badams@madison.com.