The planned restart of the Pacific Hardwoods alder sawmill in South Bend — funded with $1.5 million from the Legislature — has Port of Willapa Harbor manager Rebecca Chaffee hopeful it will encourage the development of high-end wood production facilities in the area.
“It’s huge, economically,” said Chaffee. “The mill alone is huge, but there are other things beyond that.”
She explained a hardwood mill like Pacific Hardwoods is different from most others in the region.
“You make things out of alder,” she said. “It’s a little different than the structural mill commodity market that makes 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s.”
Alder is used for things such as furniture, cabinets, doors and is the wood of choice for high end custom wood pieces.
“Alder is the perfect wood for that,” said Chaffee. “One of our priorities is, if the mill gets running, to build secondary industries around it. I think there is value in high-end custom made solid wood products.”
She said these companies couldn’t necessarily compete with the Asian markets’ mass-produced furniture, but when it comes to custom higher-end products, the region is a perfect fit for production.
The Pacific Hardwoods mill is owned by the Port of Willapa Harbor and sits on seven acres of land owned by Pacific County. The Port plans to bring in a company to manage day-to-day mill operations when the mill is updated and ready to restart.
The Port also owns dry kilns and a planer at a facility in Raymond, making the production of alder products within the area even more attractive.
“I’d like to see locals have access to our dry kilns and lathe,” said Chaffee. “We have people salvaging wood and trying to air dry it, which takes three years. By providing access to the kilns we can promote making custom higher-end products out of the wood. It’s another way to support our economy.”
She acknowledged the difficulties of bringing industry to Pacific County, but with the mill restart, possibilities are there to add to the region’s economic base.
“It’s tough recruiting new industries here, for obvious reasons,” said Chaffee. “We’re so far from I-5, the roads aren’t that good, the rail is gone, so people aren’t just going to come here and develop manufacturing jobs here, but if we keep the alder here, at least some of it, we can develop some of these other industries.”
The Port has already begun feasibility studies and business planning. The state money will be funneled through the Port and improvements and upgrades must be made to the mill before it can start operations again.
“(The ability to handle) smaller logs needs to happen before the mill is efficient,” said Chaffee. She added there is only one log delivery system at the mill and it’s for larger logs, so a second delivery system will have to be installed for the smaller-diameter logs.
The funding process
“We feel like the rural areas are getting slightly more attention than they did in the past by the people in Olympia,” said Chaffee. “We’ve been explaining the plight of the mill to the governor, the Department of Agriculture, the lieutenant governor, the Department of Natural Resources, and we just managed to hit it at the right time.”
Enter Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and her Rural Communities Partnership Initiative.
“The lands commissioner came down announcing the launch of (her initiative), and afterward her staff visited projects all over the state looking for viable projects in rural communities that were having economic hard times and had a natural resource base,” said Chaffee.
The team decided the Pacific Hardwoods mill fit that to the letter.
“The mill fit what they were looking for and they jumped in and really carried the ball,” said Chaffee. “They met with millworkers and operators, figured it could be viable if there were capital upgrades made, and they included it in a package and pushed it through the Legislature’s budget.”
There was a bit of nail biting as it came down to the last day of session before the funding was approved. In the end, the package included $1.5 million: $553,000 to assist startup costs, $500,000 for the new smaller log system, and $345,000 to debt-secure the sawmill.
The Port also received $100,000 to work with the Department of Natural Resources and The Evergreen State College to study the economic feasibility of creating an energy innovation district, which allows businesses to share energy and reuse waste, such as wood waste from the mill, to create energy.
“Right now the dry kilns are operating on propane, and it’s expensive,” said Chaffee. “We don’t have natural gas here, so we’re looking at a broader project, maybe creating a wood energy zone that would supply heat not just for the dry kilns but other businesses that might need a cheaper heat source.”
How did we get here?
“This mill has been in the community for decades,” said Chaffee. “I think it started as Hampton Hardwoods about 50 years ago.”
When the economy crashed in the 1980s, a company that “bought a lot of mills” snatched up the mill and operated it until the early 2000s, when the company went bankrupt. That’s when Willapa Hardwoods bought the mill, “struggled for a while,” said Chaffee, then sold out to Seaport Lumber. Seaport operated it until the great recession, when they shut the mill down in 2009 and ownership reverted back to the original investors.
“It was about to be auctioned off because of some outstanding debt, so some local investors came together again and tried to run it and had trouble again,” said Chaffee.
The mill has sat dormant for the last couple of months. An investor in Portland showed some interest, but the community understood the importance of the mill, not just from an economic standpoint, but a historical one. The Port saw the jobs potential and purchased the mill.
“I think, at least I hope, everybody in the community wants to see the alder mill stay here,” said Chaffee. She said because the wood is milled in South Bend and the dry kilns and lathe are in Raymond, “This mill bridges both communities.”
“There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm getting the mill started as soon as possible but there is still work to be done,” said Chaffee. The Port was also able to secure some State Department of Commerce funding through the Forest Products Financial Assistance Program, “and now we have some access to some fairly impressive people who are going to help us look at developing an up-to-date business plan for the mill.”
So if you’re looking for a firm timeline to hear the mill running again, there simply isn’t one. But the preliminary work is well under way, said Chaffee.