Stories about mill towns tend to go something like this: Generations of families work at the local sawmill. Then the mill shuts down, taking hundreds of jobs with it.
Emmett is one of those towns. Boise Cascade closed its mill there in 2001. But thats not where this story ends. Instead, it picks up with a Montana entrepreneur and millions in economic-stimulus money.
The expanse of ground where Boise Cascade used to operate is quiet and overgrown. Buildings are boarded up. A pair of quail struts across an open lot. But on one corner of the property, theres activity again.
There, Dick Vinson admires a massive machine called a debarker. Its one of the first machines logs encounter on their way through this new sawmill. Look at that thing working! he exclaims. Theres a ring spinning around inside there. It has six arms on it and it takes the bark off.
Vinson is the mills primary owner. He got most of the equipment here second-hand when other mills called it quits. In the Pacific Northwest alone, more than 100 mills have gone out of business in the last decade. Theyve been hit not only by the housing crash, but by pressure to upgrade and consolidate. Still, Vinson says this mill will work.
I believe that weve got it set up right, and its the right size, and theres a need for it, he says. When the nearest mill is 125 miles away and diesel is $4 a gallon, its pretty easy to figure that out.
Vinson has a lifetime of experience in the timber business. What he sees in Emmett is a niche for a small mill. He points out the towns relative proximity to Boise, Salt Lake and Denver. He says Canadian mills are in for trouble, because pine beetles have ravaged their timber supply. He says this operation Emerald Forest Products can be profitable this summer.
Vinson has mortgaged his Montana ranch and accepted $4 million in federal stimulus funds. That money makes the mill worth a close look. And that means going back a few years.
If there was anyone who was going to make a go of a new mill in Idaho, it was Dick Vinson.
That endorsement comes from former Idaho U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick. When federal agencies were weighing where to put stimulus dollars, Minnick, a longtime timber industry executive, supported the mill without reservation. He says no business is a safe bet, but he thought Vinson could make it work. Plus, Minnick wanted badly to bring jobs back to Emmett, a town that was once the center of Southwest Idahos timber industry.
I guess I had a soft spot in my heart for an entrepreneur as skillful as Dick Vinson who thought he could put together a mill and do it in a place that I had a strong affinity to in the middle of my congressional district, Minnick explains.
Hes defending that now because this isnt the first time the Emerald Forest Products mill has tried to get off the ground. It opened in 2010 but stopped running less than a year later. Vinson says he rushed to get started, and some equipment didnt work right. A family illness took him home to Montana. Last year, he and his partners filed for bankruptcy protection.
For residents of Gem County, where unemployment has been high for years, how the mill gets up and running is less important than if and when.
Any kind of type of business thatll come in and help support our town, thats a plus! says Debbie Flowers, who worked in Boise Cascades plywood plant for 11 years.
She sits on a couch between her son, Casey Heideman, and her father, Ray Flowers. Together, theyre three generations of proud timber industry workers.
I was a maintenance man, fix-it man, Ray Flowers says. Fixed machinery, whatever. Weld.
Millwright was Flowers official title. He spent 41 years doing that job at Boise Cascade. Now, his grandson Casey Heideman has the same position at the new mill. Younger guys like him will take most of the 40 or so jobs Emerald Forest Products will provide. Heideman thinks those jobs could make a big difference in Emmett, population 6,500.
A lot of guys I know are in North Dakota working, and theyre away from their families, he says. So when the mill gets going, itll bring a lot of guys back from working out of state, and they can be home more.
Heideman hopes a working mill will bolster local business. He hopes that could begin a revival for his hometown, so people wont have to take work in Boise, let alone the North Dakota oil fields.
Vinson can tick off half a dozen reasons to believe his mill will work. Heres one: He has hired experienced supervisors from other mills and timber businesses that fell on hard times. Dave Flackus was laid off last year after 20 years as a lumber buyer. He just moved to Emmett from Oregon.
I have seen a lot of mills go down, Flackus says. You know, a lot of people lose their jobs.
Flackus got his start at a mill in California. When I was running the mill in Alturas, I was the last employee, he says. I had 177 people that I had to let go. And that that really hurts. Decades later, his voice cracks at the memory.
That experience is part of why Flackus is in Emmett. He says it feels good to be in another small town, bringing jobs instead of watching them dry up. If he has any say about it, this mill will succeed.
By god, Im going to put my heart into it, he says. Were going to do everything in my power to make it work.
Vinson first got the idea to open a mill in Emmett in 2004, before the housing boom went bust, taking demand for lumber with it.
He is trying to make good on a business decision made at a completely different economic moment. If the mill does well, that will help not only him and Emmett.
It will also be a bright spot in an industry plagued by losses.
Molly Messick: firstname.lastname@example.orgTwitter: @mollymessick
Its a rare thing for a small sawmill to try to get up and running while a crucial market driver for lumber housing construction remains in a national slump. So when the Emerald Forest Products mill reopened in Emmett in June, something unusual was happening.
Thats a news story, timber industry expert Todd Morgan says. Thats like man bites dog instead of dog bites man. Its very counter to the trend to have a new mill opening during these market conditions.
New-home starts peaked in 2005, when construction began on more than 2 million homes. By 2009, the number had fallen to 554,000, a low not seen in 40 years of record-keeping. Housing starts havent improved much since. Moreover, the housing crash came on the heels of decades of timber industry consolidation. Since 1990, Pacific Northwest mill closures have put thousands of people out of work.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, the timber harvest from Idaho national forests dropped from 172 million board feet in 1999 to 121.2 million board feet in 2008. The Idaho Division of Financial Managements 2011 economic forecast said there are about half as many mills in the inland region as there were 20 years ago. Idaho wood-products employment sank to 5,700 in 2010, 40 percent below the 10,000 jobs of 2006, the division says.
Given all of that, how is the Emerald Forest Products mill making a go of it? Part of the answer is federal economic stimulus funding. To get up and running, the mill received $4 million in stimulus money through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Mill owner Dick Vinson says he and his partners put up an additional $11 million.
Was a small-town sawmill a good bet for taxpayer dollars?
In interviews with more than half a dozen people including local officials, a former congressman and a regional coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service the unanimous (and surprising) answer was yes. The reasons have to do with everything from the complexities of forest management to the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Acts mandate to put federal dollars toward shovel-ready projects that might create jobs.
There certainly, in my mind, is a need for a sawmill in that area, says Scott Bell, regional woody biomass utilization coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service. Of the nearly $28 billion in stimulus funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture received, $1.15 billion went to the Forest Service. Bell submitted the Emerald project for consideration.Its fitting a niche, he says. Otherwise, logs would have to be shipped a long way. Its providing employment.
Most of the timber land in Idaho is national forest land. When the Forest Service has to manage that forest land for the benefit of wildlife, say, or to reduce the risk of fires, having a sawmill nearby is a good thing. It allows the timber to be put to use. Otherwise, Bell says, there is basically one option: We would end up having to take any material that could not be sold and burn it on site, which costs money and carries risks.
Were a timber town, and we saw it as a viable opportunity to get something going again in Emmett, says County Commissioner Sharon Church-Pratt.
She met Emerald Forest Products owner Dick Vinson in 2004, when he first began thinking about building a mill in Emmett. Years later, Church-Pratt supported the project as a candidate for stimulus funds. I still think it was a good move, she says. I think hes going to make it. I really do.