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Life After Paper Mills: Plainwell

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PLAINWELL, Mich. – The Island City of Plainwell is 2.2 square miles with a population of 4,000 people.  A large mural of paper manufacturing at the Plainwell Mill still stands as a reminder of what built this city.

Now, city leaders have an eye toward the future, “This constitutes 36 acres in the middle of the city,” said Plainwell City Manager, Erik Wilson.  “It cannot be hidden.”

The vision of what will come next is somewhat clouded by government intervention.  When the Plainwell Mill closed in November of 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency said the paper making process left toxins behind.  The area is now a Superfund site, a designation given by the EPA as a top priority for clean-up.

The empty mill also represents another poison to the city, unemployment, “About 400 jobs,” said Wilson.  “It was a real bad time.”

Six years after the mill closed, the city paid $400,000 for the property.

“If this mill deteriorates what does that do to our residential housing stock?  What does that do to our central business district?  The ripple effect would be long and lasting,” said Wilson.

Wilson said people of the city and outsiders questioned if things at the site would ever change.

“I will never forget, we had one developer say, I don’t see it,” he said. “I don’t see it happening.”

What some developers passed on, Conestoga-Rovers Development saw as an investment.  Not only is the company developing the property, they also moved in.

Nick White works for Conestoga-Rovers as the project manager, “nine out of 10, nine and a half out of 10 are dormant 10 to 15 years after things have been closed down and gone.  So for us to take our step at a time, in most aspects it’s leaps and bounds what we are doing.”

The other current tenant occupying the old mill is the city of Plainwell itself.  A new city hall located on the mill property will be open in just a couple months.

“We want to establish and send the message that it is safe,” said Wilson.  “Clean-up is ongoing and it will be done.”

To get full occupancy will require a massive clean-up effort at a pace dictated by the EPA.

“We anticipate next year you will see dirt being moved,” said Wilson.  “Actual clean-up, capping, removing, disposing, all of those things.  And once that is done we can get ready for the residential to come.”

What some may see as a gamble, Wilson calls a calculated move, “That $440,000 investment is going to pay off 5,10,15,20 years from now, 100 times more.”

There are currently 50 employees at the former Plainwell mill.  It’s a far cry from the hundreds that once worked there at the height of the production but most would argue it’s a step in the right direction.

The end goal of the city and project manager is to have mixed use, residential and commercial property on site.  In the meantime the city is trying to get money to complete the demolition.

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