OMAK — It took more than three years for the Colville Tribes to negotiate a deal to lease their plywood and veneer mill in Omak to a private company.
The tenacity and patience it took to reach that agreement was celebrated Monday by state, local, private and tribal dignitaries in a grand reopening of the mill, now called Omak Wood Products.
Gov. Jay Inslee described Monday’s reopening as “the perfect example of teamwork.”
Owned and operated by the Colville Tribes, the mill laid off 230 people in January 2009, when the recession hit the construction industry. Nearby Colville Indian Precision Pine closed ten months later, laying off 130 people and leaving Omak without a wood mill for the first time in decades.
This week, with 87 employees, the mill began producing veneer, used to make plywood. The company expects to employ about 200 workers when production reaches full capacity.
“This is great news for Omak and hundreds of working families who are back to earning a living wage at the mill,” Inslee said.
The tribe was ready to shutter the mill for good when the tribal council and its business arm, Colville Tribal Federal Corporation, brokered the deal in March to lease it instead to Wood Resources, a subsidiary of the Greenwich, Conn.-based Atlas Holdings, which operates three other mills in the country. The agreement includes a wood supply agreement for timber from the 1.4 million-acre Colville Indian Reservation.
“We had decided as a body that we were going to scrap this mill,” said tribal chairman Michael Finley. He said when negotiations with Atlas appeared to fall apart after two and half years, he thought that would be the end of it.
But the company’s patience, and the tribal council’s desire to see workers back on the job finally ended with a long-term lease, he said.
Over the last three months, Wood Resources spent some $3 million to refurbish the mill, said Wood Resources chairman Richard Yarbrough.
“I can honestly say I’ve done very few things in my career quite as meaningful as reopening this mill,” he said.
He praised the tribal leaders who pursued the agreement: “This is your mill. This is your land. And without your leadership, tenacity and vision, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Mingling with workers before the ceremonial speeches, Inslee asked some whether they had worked at the Colville Indian Plywood and Veneer plant before it closed more than four years ago.
Eddie Allen, now a vat tender, said he worked at the mill in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Ronald Hance, also a vat tender, said he was laid off from his job at Colville Indian Precision Pine soon after this mill shut down. He said some of his coworkers went back to school, and some found jobs in Western Washington, and commute home to Omak on weekends. A single father of four, Hance said he relied on part-time work paving roads, or pouring concrete. He’s glad to be working close to home, he said.
Jesse Canalas, heavy equipment operator, said he, too, took a variety of jobs when he was laid off from this mill after nine years on the job.
“I’d tell them up front, if the mill reopens, I’m out of here,” he said.
He’s been back a month now and couldn’t be happier, he said, “As long as they can keep it going.”