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Seaswirl builds last boat at Culver plant

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - Apolinar Downing, left, of Metolius, and Abigail Vega, of Culver, prepare to clean the last boat built at the Culver Seaswirl plant. This is the final week for most employees.


   After 35 years in Culver, Seaswirl Boats Inc. rolled out its last boat, a 23-foot Striper Walkaround, last week, as the remaining 143 employees gathered around it for one last photo.
   "It was like a family," said Jackie Finley, with tears welling in her eyes. Finley, who has worked in the front office for the past 20 years, said she will miss her co-workers. "A lot of them have been here as long as I have."
   Genmar Holdings Inc., which has owned Seaswirl since 2001, announced in February that it would close the Culver plant and consolidate operations into its Little Falls, Minn. facilities.
   Started in 1955 as Highway Products Inc., of Canby, the company was sold to Bob Trent in 1967. Trent moved the business to Culver in 1971, and renamed it Bramco.
   In 1987, he sold the business to Outboard Motor Corp., which filed for bankruptcy 13 years later, in December of 2000.
   "We've weathered bad times," said Finley, recalling the slow economy during the Gulf War, as well as the bankruptcy and layoff near Christmas of 2000. "We kept in contact with one another and with the office. Most drew unemployment and waited until we reopened."
   Two months after the closure, Genmar purchased all 13 of OMC's boat companies -- including the profitable Seaswirl -- and reopened the Culver plant in February of 2001.
Among top taxpayers
   

   Throughout the years, Seaswirl has numbered among the top employers and taxpayers in Jefferson County, paying $116,916 in taxes on $5.35 million in assessed value in 2006.
   The company reached its peak employment of about 330, in 2005, but dropped to about 275 a year ago. Several cuts later, the company was down to 170 employees when the impending closure was announced in February.
   Since then, "We've had about 30 people that have already left that have found jobs," said Randy Stutzman, vice president of finance for Seaswirl, which has long been Culver's largest employer.
   "Now that the last boats are coming out the door, everybody is as upbeat as they can be," he said, noting that most work will be finished by Friday. "A lot of them have devotion to Seaswirl and are staying on 'til the end."
   The end will be April 27 -- the last day for 120 of the remaining 140 employees, who will mark the historic day with a barbecue and garage sale. The sale will be open to the public on Saturday.
   After the mass exodus on Friday, the numbers will continue to drop, with a dozen staying until June 1, and just three -- Stutzman, a maintenance worker and the sales coordinator -- sticking around for the closure of the plant in June.
   "The majority of the equipment and all the regular production materials are going to Little Falls," Stutzman said. The eight boats left in the warehouse will be sent to dealers.
   Earth2O, which leases a warehouse on the northwestern corner of the property, will purchase that portion of the property, while the remainder is up for sale.
Jobs offered
   

   Seaswirl has offered jobs to employees willing to transfer to Minnesota, but only two people -- Rob and Brenda Heinonen -- have accepted the offer. "They're starting in two weeks," said Stutzman.
   Others are hoping to find jobs closer to home. Boat cleaner Apolinar Downing, of Metolius, who has worked for the company for 11 years, is not sure what she will do.
   "Now, I don't know," said Downing, indicating that she plans to "look for job."
   Frank Baltazar, of Culver, has enjoyed the proximity of his job. Since 1979, he has worked at Seaswirl, as he and his wife have raised their five children. But now, the skilled boat patcher has found work in another field.
   "I have work installing glass in Redmond," he said.
   Stutzman, who moved to the area four years ago from South Carolina, is uncertain about his own future. He hasn't yet decided whether he will move with the company, or remain in Central Oregon.
   With the relatively strong economy in Central Oregon, many employees have options. Deer Ridge Correctional Institution, which will open the minimum-security portion of the facility in September, is in the process of hiring 400 to 500 employees.
   "For a lot of the more skilled workers and office workers, the prison is an option they're entertaining," Stutzman said.
   "The community's been really responsive," said Finley, who has been sending out resum‚s. "At least 12 or 15 businesses have contacted us about jobs. It gives you more hope."