Business Columns & Blogs

Think small and region can grow big

The Puget Sound region can fret about Boeing. Tacoma may be despondent over Russell.

Don’t expect a lot of sympathy in Southwest Washington. They’ve got the same issues to worry about – the loss of long-standing industries and companies, and the recession taking a bite out of what remains – and the same Big Questions as everywhere else.

Where will the jobs of tomorrow come from? Where will the industries and companies of tomorrow that will generate those jobs come from?

But Southwest Washington is not without some answers to those questions, as illustrated by the companies exhibiting at the recent Pacific Mountain Region Industry and Innovation Expo ’09, held at Little Creek Casino and Resort near Shelton.

Here’s one possible answer: A proliferation of innovative, niche-seeking small and medium-sized manufacturers the region is growing the way it used to produce Douglas-fir seedlings.

In Hoquiam, for example, Paneltech International LLC makes a product called Paperstone by compressing sheets of recycled paper soaked in a non-petroleum based resin. The result is a material that resembles hardwood and which can be used for counter and table tops, furniture and cabinets. Over in Pacific County, Raymond-based MilGreen Industries is using Paperstone to construct counters, tables, lab cubicles, lockers and other components for homes and offices.

A NEW DYNAMIC

Although Pacific County might be better known to the public for its tourism attractions such as the Long Beach Peninsula, it’s becoming a center for small manufacturers. Examples include Menlo-based Willapa Marine Products Inc., which makes shellfish harvesting gear such as clam guns and crab pots; Pacific Gro in Raymond, producer of organic fertilizer made with scraps from fish processing plants; Harmony SoapWorks in Oysterville; Terra Firma Cosmetics in Raymond; and multiple seafood processing companies.

Pacific County may be out of the way, but it’s a good place to nourish small manufacturers employing five to 10 people, said Cathy Russ, executive director of the Pacific County Economic Development Council. “We’re fortunate that we have the space and can give them a shot,” she said. “We can handle the workforce, we can handle the space, we can handle the environmental issues because it’s not large scale.”

Russ said the EDC plans “more of a campaign to get our manufacturers out there” in 2010. “As many as we have, we need to talk about it.”

The counties of Southwest Washington need success stories and lots of them to offset the battering they’ve taken in forest products and the companies that cut trees and turned them into building products sold to the now-decimated home-construction market.

CONSTANT STRUGGLE

“We’re holding on,” said Dick Larman, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, which has recently claimed a few successes including a new wind-energy installation and a Nevada ammunition manufacturer moving to Packwood.

But it’s a constant struggle. “Every time we get a win like the windmills or the armory, something else burns down or a mill closes up,” Larman said.

It’s a struggle that every corner of the state, including metro areas such as Tacoma and Seattle, will have to relentlessly attend to if they want a viable economy. The recession is not done altering the fortunes of individual companies and entire industries. New companies will be needed for those that don’t survive the changes.

But the model being pursued in this corner of the state is one that would work well for much of Washington: encourage the development of lots of entrepreneurial ventures in the hope that some of them will grow to sustainable job-generating companies.

That model will work even in established industries such as forest products, where companies are learning to use former waste materials for new products.

But economic development officials would like to see the economy bolstered by a diversity of manufacturing, which is why they’re intrigued with growth sectors like green building materials and value-added agriculture.

Lewis County, Larman said, has 90,000 acres of agricultural land, and it sits midway between two prime markets for the foods it could produce there. The problem to be addressed, he added, is that “there’s no coordinated delivery system” to get those products to those markets.

“We could be doing so much for the population centers” in Seattle and Portland in growing and processing food, said Rick Hole, a veteran of Ocean Spray who is now executive director of the Northwest Manufacturers Alliance.

Larman was referring to the opportunities for value-added ag in Southwest Washington, but he could just as easily have been discussing the potential for manufacturers in the region generally when he said, “We’ve got small and really big, and there’s a market down at that small end.”

There certainly is, a market big enough to fit all of Southwest Washington and a few other cities and regions of the state. The recession notwithstanding, time’s a’wastin’ in getting those ventures going. Boeing and Russell started out as small operations. The sooner the Boeings and Russells of tomorrow are started, the sooner they – and the jobs they’ll bring – will arrive.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sundays in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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