By Jef Rietsma
An unlikely alliance has formed between backers of a plan to redevelop the Vicksburg paper mill and a group of local teens curious about its past and future.
John Kern, a key member of the group behind the undertaking, said an opportunity arose over the summer that allowed the improbable partnership to form. Kern and his wife, Jackie Koney, played an integral role in fostering the alliance.
The teenagers, including 13-year-old Patrick Carr, went on to learn more about the mill’s past and share their findings with anyone interested.
Carr and his pals showed off their knowledge during a tour of the property Sept. 7. Kern and others updated adult participants with details about the multi-million-dollar plan to rejuvenate the mill into a destination site, including dining and retail components. Meanwhile, Carr, his 15-year-old brother and 17-year-old cousin provided a historical perspective about the century-old mill before the walk-through.
The three made a flawless presentation and thoroughly answered questions posed by some members of the 24-person group.
Kern said they have taken on the role of youth ambassadors for the redevelopment and future of the mill. Their research included assistance from the Vicksburg Historical Society.
“Jackie Koney met with them first and she thought a good starting point would be to take them through the mill, get a better feel for the place,” Kern said. “So, together, we eventually took them on a tour. It was pretty easy to see their level of interest in the place increase the longer we were there and the more they saw.”
“I give credit to these young men, who approached us about wanting to learn more about the place,” he said.
Kern said that level of appreciation and newfound respect for the mill meant a lot, especially coming from teens when some of their peers are more intrigued with trespassing and vandalism than a history lesson.
“They have really taken ownership of the building … not too long ago there was some damage done, a few windows broken, and it was pretty clear they took it personally. They were really bothered by that” – as was Kern.
Eventually, Kern said, the teens came up with the idea of writing a letter to U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, whose backing could potentially benefit the project’s redevelopment. Kern said the proposed letter of support was a savvy idea, as there was no harm in letting Upton know the project is endorsed by area residents of all ages, including teenagers.
Carr said he was most impressed by the workmanship of the building as well as its volume.
“I knew it was an old building, like maybe it was built in the ‘60s, but when I found out it was more than 100 years old, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I also thought it was pretty interesting that so much of the work was done by hand.”
Carr said he doesn’t prefer public speaking in front of classmates, but was less nervous in front of the people involved in the Sept. 7 walk-through. He explained the phenomenon as “kind of weird.”
“I mean, we knew John and Jackie, but it was just different talking about the mill in front of them and a bunch of strangers,” Carr said. “It was neat to learn about the history of the place. I didn’t know anything in Vicksburg was that old.”