OMAK — The Colville Indian Plywood and Veneer plant in Omak will restart operations this summer after shutting down more than four years ago when the recession hit the construction industry.
In Omak, the news means one thing — jobs.
Officials say 100 mill workers will be hired when it restarts, and eventually some 200 employees will operate the mill, which laid off 230 employees in January 2009.
Many more jobs will be created — directly for loggers and log truck drivers, and indirectly for businesses that benefit from 200 more people with living-wage paychecks.
The restart comes with a 25-year lease between the Colville Tribal Federal Corporation — the Colville Tribes’ business arm — and Wood Resources, a subsidiary of the Greenwich, Conn.-based Atlas Holdings, which operates three other mills in the country.
“We’re just so excited and happy for the return of jobs,” said Colville Tribal Chairman John Sirois.
He said the partnership with a private plywood manufacturer will enable the Colville Tribes to restart timber operations on tribally-owned forestland. “We haven’t moved any timber in quite a while,” he said.
Sirois said it’s too soon to say whether the restart could signal an eventual reopening of the Colville Indian Precision Pine, a tribally-owned lumber mill east of Omak which laid off 130 people when it closed in November 2009.
But economic development officials are hailing the news.
“For the last couple of years, people have struggled, and we’ve seen businesses go out because people didn’t have money coming in,” said Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the county’s Economic Alliance, the county’s economic development agency.
“This is going to put people back to work, and when people are working, they’re able to shop locally,” she said. “They’re able to eat at restaurants.”
Richard Yarbrough, chairman of Wood Resources, said his company is already being hammered with employment application requests — which are not yet available.
He said Omak’s experienced workforce is one reason his company is partnering with the tribe to reopen the mill. “There is an advantage to having a workforce that is keenly motivated to go back to work,” he said. “And there have been mills there for over 90 years so there’s a lot of experience there.”
When hiring begins, the company will offer a hiring preference for tribal members, he said. “It is their timber and this is their mill. We feel a strong obligation — and are required — to give preference to tribal members,” he said.
Yarbrough said the tribal ownership of about 600,000 acres of commercial forestland is another factor that makes this deal attractive. “There’s a strong mutual benefit. If this mill is running, they have a place to sell their logs, and the mill has a place to get logs,” he said.
Yarbrough said Wood Resources has been in discussions with the Colville Tribes for over two years — starting when the country was in the depth of recession. Since the lumber and plywood industries are cyclical, he said, Wood Resources was always confident the market for wood products would come back eventually. “We still retain that confidence, and we have a lot more evidence to suggest we should have a lot more confidence,” he added.
As the market returns, he said, the company’s ability to find buyers may be even stronger because many mills closed permanently over the last five years.
Wood Resources has owned and operated Olympic Panel, a plywood mill in Shelton, Wash., for 10 years. It also owns mills in North and South Carolina.
“There’s more than just money to be made here,” he said. Reopening the mill can help alleviate the double-digit unemployment rates in Okanogan County and on the Colville Indian Reservation.
“We’re pretty excited about that partnership, because it offers something to a group of people who are struggling,” he said, adding, “There’s something really significant about that.”
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512