Friday, June 16 marks the end of an era for Jay Zidell, the president of the Zidell Companies.
The scion of the ship dismantling and barge building dynasty gets a little emotional when he reflects on the launch of the final barge Zidell Marine has built at its pale blue structure on south waterfront.
Before walking with the Business Tribune around the freshly painted black barge, Zidell wants to say something:
"This is going to be a big day, exiting the barge business after 56 years, and that comes with very mixed feelings for me." He talks about the great people and memories, and "on the flipside, the great opportunity to make a major contribution to the fabric of the whole city."
Regarding the human side: "We've had 50 to 60 people who have been building barges here for a very long time. We have people that have been here 30 or 40 years. That's the hard part," he says, contemplating their dislocation.
Zidell adds he has been in consultation with other marine equipment manufacturers in the trade area. "It's our belief than anyone who wants to continue working in the field, they can find work." For example at Greenbrier Rail Services and Vigor Industrial.
He cautions, "We are getting out of the barge building business, we are not getting out of the barge-leasing business, which we've been doing for most of those 56 years. We expect to be in that business for some time to come." Zidell Marine has a dozen out for lease right now.
"My dad started the barge building business in 1961 it was merely an outgrowth of a ship dismantling business he had started prior to that. We started out building smaller, simpler products. They got bigger and after the Exxon Valdez incident they U.S. Government out law into place that said all oil had to be moved on double hulls." Most of the barges Zidell Marine has built in the last 15 years have been double-hulled petroleum tankers. "And culminating Friday, Zidell Marine 277 is the largest and most sophisticated barge we've built to date.
Its working name was hull 686, but the company it is chartered to has agreed the final barge be named Zidell Marine 277 for posterity's sake, since it is the 277th barge built there.
The piping, pumps, motors, electrical systems, hydraulic systems, pipes, hoses, cranes and anchors are bought from other people. What goes on at Zidell is large plates of steel are welded together into the giant floating box that is a barge. (A barge is not a ship. It doesn't have a motor or quarters for people. It is a giant box, filled with oil or gas or coal or gravel or wheat, and is pushed by a tugboat.)
Inside the blue building, work starts at the end nearest the river and moves west toward the city. The pieces get bigger and bigger until they are lifted into position by one of the three exterior cranes, then welded on.
Hot metal to real estate
Inside the building Zidell points out some of the machinery that has been sold or is on the block: a giant plate lifter with circular electromagnets, used for picking up half inch thick steel plates and moving them around. Other machinery includes a spreader bar and a welding machine.
Five gallon buckets of orange goop sits ready to grease the skids of the barge on Friday, when it slides into the Willamette.
After the barge is launched there will be a couple of weeks more work before the Seattle company adds some bells and whistles of its own, such as vapor recovery systems.
Zidell will be the owner but is chartering it to Olympic Tug & Barge in Seattle, AKA Harley Marine.
Although it will carry 83,000 barrels of liquid, the barge is not huge by world standards, and Zidell can't make a bigger one in the South Waterfront. The space where the barge is being built is not wide enough.
The company announced last September to the workforce of 60 plus that it would cease building barges after construction on a current vessel is completed.
Zidell Marine is part of the Zidell family's 33-acre property known as the Zidell Yards. Jay Zidell revealed last September that the work as coming to an end.
Now the switch from hot metal to real estate is almost complete.
Can people get barges cheaper elsewhere?
"Probably, yes, internationally. But in terms of the domestic market, we can be competitive with anybody," he says.
"The barge business is going away because the equipment gets bigger and bigger. Our facility has physical limits. We're flat up against our size limitations.
Secondly, we're not ready to develop the property the day after the barge launches. South Waterfront is changing rapidly."
He lists the buildings going up nearby, which are starting to block views that were preserved by a decade long property stagnation, an economic micro climate brought on by condo development in an area with no lifestyle attractions.
From torches to orange bikes
Since the Tillikum Crossing opened Zidell has noticed a huge influx of traffic and pedestrians in the neighborhood. "It's become a bigger challenge to navigate though the neighborhood." So much so that if they had taken on constructing one barge, building it would have taken 15 to 18 months given all the traffic delays. Hence his decision last September to tell the staff he was hanging up his torch, not passing it on.
"We have high expectations to be able to reuses the barge fabrication building. We have some interest but no body signed up yet. And we hope it will be in the front end of the development."
He said the fabrication building represented a fabulous chance to reemploy it and preserve our legacy in a fashion, of our 88 years on the site.
On Monday, the process of cleaning up the yard will continue, "getting ready for the day when infrastructure that will support the redevelopment. The city has planned roads and parks, and Zidell has three green spaces planned, although they won't all be built right away, he cautions.
"When the site is cleaned up, in the future we and the city will be able to do things on the site. The building will just sit there until things start to happen." They'll be showing the building to prospective users. He's looking for "something that makes sense economically to the party and is of helping to build community in the south Waterfront."
The Zidell pipe business will remain on Northwest Front Avenue near the Kitteridge overpass. It has 140 people working there, although it has taken a hit these last three years with the decline in global oil prices.
The Zidell barge business began as a way of building barges out of recycled steel from the World War II ships that Zidell was breaking down on the site. "Most barges at the time were wooden," says Zidell. "Customers figured out they wanted a barge that wouldn't sink and we just kept building them."
On ZM 277 the thickest steel is around three quarters to one inch thick.
At the stern is the notch, a wishbone-shaped indentation where the tug locks in to a set of metal teeth.
How long does the tug stay attached? "I don't know. We build them, we don't operate them," he says with characteristic terseness.
The craft is impressive close up, and emotive. But small compared to the concrete towers going up next door.
The barge currently sits about five feet off the ground, its side smoothly curving into a flat bottom. It's on a long trailer with rubber tires, like a multiple 18-wheeler. Jay Zidell doesn't know what the equipment is called or who makes it, and doesn't have much interest. He has to think for a moment for the name of the designer: Elliott Bay.
Backhoes and excavators bustle around, and metallic clanking still comes from inside the fab structure. Outside, workers in bandanas take a smoke and phone break.
It's not hard to imagine a Salt & Straw in there, over by a steel pillar, or a Pilates studio at the building's gaping mouth, where it overlooks the tip of Ross Island.
The barge will be wheeled to the slipway and held in place by two steel plates, about two feet square, with holes in them. Then in ritual fashion, two welders will "burn" the metal symmetrically, cutting between the dots. The strain will be so great that the last piece will tear and the vessel will start moving and in less than thirty seconds will slide into the river. The platform it is on for launch will later be retrieved form the water. The barge will be gone by Friday evening, heading up the Willamette to a different moorage for two weeks, and then on to a life in the Puget Sound.