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Pioneer Editorial: Agreement buys time for plant

We should always become concerned when government decides what's best for the private sector and intrudes in its operation. But in the case of legislation that would mandate Ainsworth Lumber Co. to keep its closed Bemidji plant in operating shape could mean the difference to hundreds of workers in the Bemidji area, as well is timber industry suppliers and vendors.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, authored the bill based on advice from Iron Ranger Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia. Rukavina authored similar legislation when the taconite industry went bust and plant closings were imminent. Now there is a mini comeback, and the plants were ready for new owners.

Persell's bill would have specified that owners of oriented-strand board companies facing closure keep the facilities in "salable" condition, meaning that assets remain in place, heat and cooling be maintained and security provided. It doesn't mean that production lines be ready to run, but that the building is in such a shape that a new owner would have minimal startup costs.

The law apparently will become unnecessary, as Persell and Rep. Brita Sailer, DFL-Park Rapids, announced Tuesday that an agreement had been reached with Ainsworth to keep the Bemidji plant salable. The agreement also has Ainsworth providing $150,000 to help determine feasible alternative uses for all three of Ainsworth's shuttered plants -- Bemidji, Cook and Grand Rapids. Ainsworth will work with the state and the Iron Range Resources Board for that study.

Grand Rapids has taken the charge, as Ainsworth is working with the Itasca Economic Development Commission to convert the plant site there in to a multi-tenant Eco Industrial Park for tenants focused on producing clean, renewable or sustainable energy products.

Hopefully a similar arrangement here with Ainsworth and the Joint Economic Development Commission can succeed in finding a new role for the plant. But it would be a shot in the local economy if a buyer could be found that would retain the plant as a wood manufacturing facility. It was upgraded as a Potlatch Corp. plant and can be adapted to best use our abundant, sustainable timber supply.

A bio-energy use could be developed as an after production plan, but keeping manufacturing jobs in northern Minnesota would be key. A stumbling block will be capital for a new operation, but perhaps state help coupled with a turnaround in the housing market could make the Bemidji plant viable again.

And when it does, the plant will be intact.