July 26, 2016 at 1:50 pm | By CHRIS PETERSON Hungry Horse News
That was the hope after Montana Sen. Jon Tester held a round table discussion Friday on impending layoffs at the Weyerhaeuser mills and administrative offices in Columbia Falls.
Casey Malmquist, the president and general manager of SmartLam, said his company plans meeting with local Weyerhaeuser officials on the possible sale of at least one mill building to his company in the next week and a half.
SmartLam builds super strong cross-laminated wood panels that are used in building construction, bridges, and platforms for oil well rigs. It currently has a facility in Columbia Falls behind Super 1 Foods, but would like to expand.
But its expansion hinges on new market tax credits, a federal program administered by the states that helps businesses expand and create jobs.
Word on those awards will come in late October or November. Weyerhaeuser’s sawmill is about 135,000 square feet. SmartLam needs about 100,000 square feet, Malmquist said. He said in five years, the company could be employing the number of workers who lost their jobs in layoffs.
Even if a deal with Weyerhaeuser can’t be worked out, SmartLam could still expand to the city’s shovel-ready industrial park off Railroad Street. The zoning, economic development zone, and plats are all in place. It just needs tenants.
“We need to get you over there,” Tester said to Malmquist in reference to company expansion.
Tester said he would help in any way he could.
“We need to get the industrial park cooking,” he said after the meeting. He said it was important to get anchor businesses in there which would attract more tenants.
“Success breeds success,” he said.
But workers also need help right now. Some will get severance packages, others hope for jobs in Weyerhaeuser’s Kalispell mills, which will remain open. Of the 240 or so that will lose jobs in Columbia Falls, another 140 jobs will be added to Kalispell.
But that leaves about 100 out of work, and about another 100 out of work in the company’s administrative offices. Some will need retraining so they can pursue other jobs.
Past layoffs at Plum Creek and the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. plant utilized the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, a program that gives workers assistance if they’ve lost their jobs to foreign competition. It’s highly beneficial for retraining, because workers get their benefits extended for two years, whereas normal unemployment lasts just six months.
But Weyerhaeuser hasn’t pursued that program. The application for the TAA program is about two pages long, but does require additional administrative work by the company, noted Laura Gardner with the Job Service office in Kalispell. Gardner said she’s met with nearly 200 workers since the mill closures were announced.
Community leaders also hoped the city could somehow benefit from the Cedar Palace property, either through a gift to the city from the company for future industrial development, or some other mechanism. City leaders also want Weyerhaeuser to make a good on a previous agreement with Plum Creek to restore the “pit to park” next to Mitchell Way.
In that deal, Plum Creek was able to fill an old city gravel pit with waste wood for years in exchange for making it into a park when they were done filling it in.
But right now, the city has no park and the lot is weeds.
A Canadian business that process sand has also shown an interest in Columbia Falls, because it has a source of power.
Tester said he plans on calling company officials directly to lobby on behalf of the city and the workers who lost their jobs to see if progress on any of these ideas will come to fruition.
Tester said he wasn’t buying the company’s excuse that log supply is what closed the Columbia Falls mills. He noted that when he asked Plum Creek for support of his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, a bill that has set timber harvests on some National Forests, the company at the time told him it had enough private timber.
For workers, the clock is definitely ticking. Flathead Valley Community College, which provides retraining programs, starts classes Aug. 25. The company has said the mills will close in late August or September.
That doesn’t leave much, if any, time for workers who could be out of a job to make some tough life choices.