A historic sawmill in Hood River County will soon reopen its doors — rare news during a severe decline in Oregon’s timber industry.
The Upper Hanel Mill is expected to begin production by early fall, with an initial 30-35 workers onboard. The facility has been sitting idle since it was purchased in July of 2001 for about $2 million by High Cascade International Corporation, located in Carson, Wash. The mill had been abruptly shut down the year before when its former owner, Quality Veneer and Lumber, filed for bankruptcy in a Seattle federal court.
Bob Hanel, the son of the late Sterling Hanel, who founded Hanel Lumber Company in 1943, said it will be “refreshing” to see log trucks once again traveling up and down Highway 35.
“We are really grateful to see the mill start back up and I know that my dad was totally employee-oriented and would have been pleased that they are going back to work,” he said.
Brothers Brad and Bill Wilkins, who now co-own the facility, expect to begin hiring the “best qualified candidates” this summer. That count is lower than the 120 employees who were on the job prior to the mill’s closure in September of 2000. But Hood River County Commission Chair Rodger Schock said it is good news to have more family-wage jobs arrive in the area — and heralds hope for the future.
“This is about as good of news as we can get,” he said.
With the closure of the upper and lower Hanel mills, the county lost a $4.5 million annual payroll. Local officials are excited about the economic boost brought by the new plant and have offered to assist in any way possible.
“We’re excited that they’ve made the decision to reopen the mill and we’re looking forward to the job creation opportunities they will bring to the table,” said Bill Fashing, Hood River’s economic development coordinator.
One of the greatest startup helps, according to the Wilkins, has been the inclusion of the property into an Enterprise Zone.
Last year, the Cascade Locks City Council agreed to include commercial and industrial lands outside of its urban border in the special map. The state has set up 49 special zones that can each cover a maximum of 12 square miles and provide temporary tax breaks for new enterprises. Because of the boundary change, both Cardinal Glass Industries, now located on the site of the Lower Hanel Mill, and Mt. Hood Forest Products qualify for a three year reduced rate.
Brad expects the announcement of the mill’s reopening to quell rumors that it was purchased simply to eliminate any possible competition. He said the hope of High Cascade has always been to put the facility back into service. The Wilkins plan to begin outfitting their buildings with new equipment as soon as the weather permits and are already organizing that overhaul.
“This is a competitive industry and this mill will be ready for that competition when we get done with it,” he said.
In fact, High Cascade has been the prime buyer of the county’s harvestable timber for the past two years, successfully bidding for 20,100 board feet of lumber.
Many of those trees were Douglas Fir — sold at an average of $373 per thousand board feet — and it is that species, in a diameter of between 8-20 inches, which will be processed through the new mill. The Wilkins plan to find the logs for manufacturing within a 120-mile circle of their new operation that has been named Mt. Hood Forest Products. They currently have ownership in two other thriving plants, High Cascade Veneer along the Columbia River shoreline in Home Valley, Wash., and the Wilkins, Kaiser and Olson (WKO) sawmill just north of Carson.
Several years ago, they were also involved in the purchase of the former Stevenson Co-Ply holdings on the Washington shoreline across from Cascade Locks but have not yet decided what to do with that property.
How have the Wilkins weathered the economic storm that has closed more than 150 mills in Oregon since 1989 and put at least 20,100,000 timber-related workers out of a job? Bill said the company made it through tough times by utilizing the latest technology to increase efficiency and cut production costs.
“The key to our success has been continued modernization,” he said.
Just weeks before QVL folded, officials had announced plans for a $6 million retooling of the upper mill, which had last been upgraded in 1981. However, the first piece of equipment for that renovation was left sitting on the Hood River property untouched when the bankruptcy was filed.
Although the lower mill was once used for planing and shipping preparations, the upper facility is being outfitted to house the entire operation. The Wilkins have already scouted out the necessary equipment at markets across the region and have acquired the machinery they will need for the debarking, cutting, planing and kiln-drying processes.
Although the mill will have a new name and a new look, it will have a familiar face behind the general manager’s deck. Mike Messman, who was employed at Hanel for 20 years, is glad to be back on the job. He will be joined by four other top staffers who have either worked for or had close business ties with the Wilkins since the 1970s.
Charlie Allen of White Salmon, Wash., who already serves as vice-president of WKO, will take on that same role for the Mt. Hood facility. Scott Griswold of Stevenson will oversee lumber operation, Brad Buhman of Camas, Wash., will serve as sales manager and Paul Anderson of Carson as the supervisor of construction.
“I think it says something about how a company takes care of its employees when so many of them are long-term,” said Messman, who left a foreman position at Cardinal for a return “home.”
He said the history of lumber production in Hood River County goes back more than 100 years and it is good to see a return of that production.
“Its very exciting to be back and have a working sawmill once again in this county,” he said.