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Boise Cascade shuts down St. Helens veneer plant

by: Darryl Swan, Boise Cascade announced a shutdown of the veneer plant in St. Helens on Sept. 10, resulting in the loss of 36 jobs.

Overlooking the Boise Cascade veneer plant in St. Helens from the South Second Street bluff, the sounds of industry are muted, but not silenced.

Gene Gartman, 73, has lived along the bluff for most of his life. He grew up when the former Pope and Talbott operation dominated the lowlands, and all but the biggest blasts today are tuned out.

'I don't hear it. I'm so used to it,' he said.

But news of Boise Cascade's announcement to close the venneer plant last week is going to be harder to ignore.

'I hate to see it go,' Gartman said.

Closure announced

Boise Cascade announced Sept. 10 that it is permanently closing its veneer plant in St. Helens.

The shutdown went into effect on Sept. 11 and resulted in the loss of 36 salaried and hourly jobs. A small crew still remains onsite to handle distribution of the remaining log inventories.

The veneer plant is separate from the nearby Boise Paper pulp and paper mill owned by Boise Inc., a manager for which said the veneer plant closure will have minimal effect on the pulp and paper mill operations.

Bob Smith, the human resources manager for Boise Cascade's Western Oregon Region for wood products manufacturing, said a combination of low market demand for wood veneer and St. Helens' geographic position triggered the closure.

In particular, the veneer produced at the St. Helens mill must be shipped to southern Oregon where it is used in the plywood manufacturing process at other Boise Cascade plants. Because there are other veneer plants operating closer to that central base, the distant St. Helens plant was operating at a distinct disadvantage, he said.

Smith was on hand Wednesday to break the news to the St. Helens veneer plant employees.

'It's never easy to tell an employee that they're losing a job due to no fault of their own,' he sad.

Some of Boise Cascade's immediate plans include meeting with the veneer plant union members to discuss the closure's effects and what sort of severance package will be offered.

Smith said there is no intention at this point of selling the plant or the property on the banks of the Columbia River it is located on.

'We have not approached anyone about buying either the plant or the property. In fact, we intend in the foreseeable future to retain it.'

He said the plant and equipment on site will be 'mothballed' to sustain extended dormancy.

When asked about the closure, St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson said 'it is a very sad day for St. Helens.'

Almost a year ago to the day Boise Cascade, which is privately held in percentages belonging to Madison Dearborn Partners and OfficeMax, announced its intention to sell its pulp and paper assets to a start-up New York investment company, returning the operation to a publicly traded corporation. The sale, valued at $1.67 billion in cash and stock option, included the St. Helens pulp and paper mill and closed earlier this year. The new company was named Boise Inc.

Nick Nachbar, the Boise Inc. pulp and paper mill manager at St. Helens, said in a prepared statement that the St. Helens veneer plant contributed a 'very small portion' of the mill's total fiber supply, which will be made up via other marketplace purchases.

Build up to closure

The ongoing slide in the wood market, a direct effect of diminished demand for new housing construction, hit home at the veneer plant last February, when a swing shift was dropped and a number of full-time jobs were lost. Since then, the plant has undergone several weeklong and half-week layoffs, trends that finally culminated in Wednesday's permanent closure.

Smith pointed to a reduction in housing starts from 2 million in 2005 to roughly 900,000 in 2008.

'In that period of time, that's how dramatic it's been in the reduction of housing starts,' he said.

This is the first permanent shutdown of a Boise Cascade mill as the result of the housing bust, though there have been several temporary closures.

'Within Boise Cascade, we have had other of our operating units, other mills, take temporary layoffs in the last couple months,' Smith said.

Other local wood industries have taken their lumps associated with the housing market crises, including the 2006 closure of the Stimson lumber mill in St. Helens that resulted in the loss of roughly 50 jobs.