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Big-hearted builder is proof you can make a difference

Construction company boss also puts in labors of love

When Jim Hirte, a Portland civil engineer, arrived in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in 1991 to help build a school, he wondered, 'What the heck am I doing here?'

Badgered by a friend into making the journey with Tigard-based Operation Shoe Box, he found himself falling in love with the people he met there.

'They were so gracious, and it can't help but touch you,' he said. 'That's when I had a sense that you can make a difference. It kind of grabbed me, and I keep going back.'

The president and founder of Colamette Construction Co. has returned to Honduras eight times, most often with Lifeline Christian Mission.

Working with construction teams, he's helped build a medical and dental clinic and schools. He's often brought along Colamette employees, who also have built structures for Qwest, Verizon, AT&T and Adventist Medical System in Portland.

'They (the staff) come back, and they want to adopt kids,' said Hirte, whose company sponsors eight children through Cleveland-based Lifeline.

Closer to home, at Christmas he gave a friend a tree loaded with stuffed toy animals Ñ from polar bears to wolves. That prompted a fund-raising raffle that yielded $2,300 for United Way and a local family in need.

Last year Hirte spearheaded a campaign to build a new $58 million Providence Newberg Hospital, where he is chairman of the board of directors. He also helped the Oregon Food Bank and opened his checkbook to give $8,400 to the Cascade Pacific Boy Scouts, a group that has, in his words, 'been really bashed lately.'

Hirte also serves on the Habitat for Humanity board and is president of the Newberg Chamber of Commerce.

'My wife says I just can't say no,' Hirte said.

'It's really rewarding,' he says of his contributions. 'I look at the long-term payoff.'

'He is a major service-oriented individual steeped in values,' said Mark Meinert, chief executive officer of Providence Newberg Hospital. 'He always has community at heart.'

This week Hirte stepped down as president of the Oregon-Columbia Chapter of the Associated General Contractors after pushing for reforms in the construction industry.

The Oregon State University graduate also made it his mission to persuade more middle school and high school students to join the construction business through apprenticeships and summer workshops for high school teachers.

'We're an industry facing a crisis and have trouble getting people,' he said.

Hirte started his career at Hoffman Construction and nine years later joined Haertl Construction. In 1978, owner Roland Haertl virtually handed him the business.

'He was having problems and he said, 'You guys want the company?' ' Hirte said. 'You have 24 hours to decide. It's one of those things where you just say, 'OK.' '

He renamed the company Colamette in 1979, after the Columbia and Willamette rivers, and relocated from Tigard to Sherwood six years ago. The company had billings of $25 million last year on projects ranging from health care buildings to churches.

'We have our biggest backlog in years,' Hirte said. New projects include the Rolling Hills Community Church in Tualatin and the Monmouth Baptist Church.

One of his admirers is Ken Austin, a friend and client of Hirte's and founder of Newberg dental equipment manufacturer A-dec.

'It just amazes me how much he is able to do and run a good business,' he said. 'He's always giving back, volunteering. He's a generous person.'