Abandoned mill to get new tenant

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Wood chips pile up from the chipper in front of the Plum Creek plant in Columbia Falls. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake file)

The former Weyerhaeuser lumber mill in Columbia Falls will soon gain a new tenant.

SmartLam LLC, a local manufacturer of cross-laminated timber, plans to move into the mill by the end of this year, as part of an expansion from 20,000 cubic feet of production per year to 80,000 cubic feet per year. The company plans to add 75 jobs at the facility by the end of 2019.

In a town that’s suffered the closure of two large industrial plants in recent years, the news is stoking high hopes.

“Obviously it’s great news,” Columbia Falls Mayor Don Barnhart told the Daily Inter Lake. “We’ve been looking for SmartLam to expand. If they could put 50 to 75 people to work, that’d be wonderful.”

Last year Weyerhaeuser closed its Columbia Falls mill and eliminated 72 positions there, along with about 100 administrative roles.

These losses came after the long decline and, in 2009, the closure of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. Plant, now a Superfund site.

These events might look like a textbook case of industrial decline. But in 2012, SmartLam began manufacturing a new building material in the town. Cross-laminated timber consists of several sheets of wood stacked and glued together, forming structural panels

“Because of CLT’s amazing strength, rigidity and stability,” SmartLam says on its website, “It is a cost-competitive replacement for the traditional structural materials like steel, concrete and masonry.”

The material has seen use in Europe for over 20 years, but SmartLam was the first to commercially produce it in the U.S. By mid-decade, the firm was supplying projects across North America and looking to expand.

Weyerhaeuser’s closure opened up a large facility close to home. Last month, Columbia Falls-based Ruis Holdings and Stargazer Land and Cattle purchased the 40-acre property. SmartLam signed a long-term lease to occupy part of it.

“It has a number of things that we’re looking for,” SmartLam president and general manager Casey Malmquist told the Daily Inter Lake, explaining that the former mill had good rail and highway access, and that it had several of the facilities needed for large-scale wood processing.

“About a year ago, we ordered a new equipment line, and now we can begin” production.

He said that this new line will be largely automated, so many of the 75 hires will be in design, engineering, sales, and logistics. “These will be good, high-quality jobs.”

Others could follow, says Kim Morisaki, marketing and business development director at Montana West Economic Development.

“I do think that there is a place and opportunity for technology-driven companies that make products” in Columbia Falls, she said.

Despite its recent hardships, Morisaki says that the town still has several traits that tomorrow’s employers will seek: a strong work ethic, good schools, outdoors recreation opportunities, and access to the Chicago-Seattle rail line.

“It takes all these pieces to attract businesses, and that’s an economic developer’s dream.”

Malmquist said the company received an employment grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, and that “we have a good working relationship with the community of Columbia Falls...We look forward to working with the city to fulfill the requirements of being a good neighbor.”

Mayor Barnhart already sees them as one.

“We’ve been working with them since they started,” he told the Daily Inter Lake. “I think that it’s a win-win.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at 758-4407.

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