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Effort in works to save iconic Red Wing business

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Red Wing Pottery employee Mark Connolly works on pottery in the store Tuesday. Red Wing Pottery will shut down at the end of the year if a buyer doesn't emerge.

RED WING — Negotiations are underway to keep one of this historic Mississippi River city's iconic businesses alive.

The owners of Red Wing Pottery said they are trying to line up someone to take it over. If a new owner is not found soon, the 140-year-old business will close at the end of December.

"It's a very difficult thing to do, to consider closing," said Scott Gillmer, whose family has owned Red Wing Pottery for three generations."First and foremost in my mind now is finding the right person to carry this forward."

If that can't be done, then steps will be taken to close the business.

Once one of the largest pottery makers in the nation, Red Wing Potterysimply isn't making the money needed to sustain it, Gillmer said. However, he said he believes the legendary brand with its well-known pottery still has potential.

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"I believe there is still an opportunity for someone to evolve it and be successful," he said.

Red Wing Pottery consists of a collection of shops and a studio where artisans make salt-glazed pottery, which is how the company began in 1878. However, the clay isn't dug up locally as it was until the 1930s.

Gillmer said about 400 pottery pieces are made and sold for between $18 to $175 each year.

"I've been proud of the fact that we've been producing U.S.-made products. It's quality, iconic stuff. It far and away outsells anything else we sell in the building," he said.

The whole operation, including stores and pottery studio, has 13 full-time and 25 part-time employees on staff. In the 1960s when the full manufacturing facility was in operation, Red Wing Pottery had about 130 employees.

It stopped mass-producing the pottery in 1967, which is when Gillmer's grandfather bought what remained of the company and transformed it into a retail operation.

Red Wing Pottery pieces from the 1800s to the 1960s are hot items for collectors, which has helped keep the brand famous. The pottery maker's history in Red Wing still attracts crowds of tourists to the picturesque city. Red Wing frequently has been named to travel lists of the best historic U.S. cities to visit.

"People come from all over the world to see the home of two iconic products, Red Wing Pottery and Red Wing Shoes," Gillmer said.

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In recent years, tourists and collectors haven't had as much disposable income to spend, even if they still make the trip. The recession followed by a slow recovery has made maintaining the 32,000-square-foot operation more difficult.

"At first, you think things will get better. When they don't get better, you start thinking about what you might need to do," Gillmer said. "This year is no better than the year before. I can't run it through another winter."

While it's unavoidable, that bottom line is not as easy one to accept.

"My kids laugh at me because they've heard me say hundreds of thousands of times that I'm a third-generation business owner. I take a lot of pride in that," he said.

Gillmer is talking with a potential buyer and hopes to know by the end of month if he'll be able to sell it.

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Scott Gillmer

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