Gazette photo by CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE
Mingo County coal and timber operator Buck Harless has some ideas for bringing more value-added wood products businesses to the state.
By Ken Ward Jr.
Buck Harless likes to cut down trees. But he's tired of shipping them all out of state to be made into furniture.
The Mingo County coal and timber baron has joined a chorus of businessmen, academics and environmental activists who believe West Virginia is missing out on the economic promise of its vast forests.
"I think it's a crime," Harless said after a tour of his sawmill on Cabin Creek. "It's bothered me for many, many years."
Harless and his company, International Industries, send about 95 percent of their timber production out of state or out of the country to be processed.
According to Harless, for every West Virginian who cuts and hauls lumber, six people work out of state to process it.
"We're exporting six jobs for every one we've got," Harless said. "We must do something about it. We cannot go on shipping the timber and the jobs out of the state every year."
This situation has never made sense to many people. Wouldn't it be cheaper to make something out of the trees right here where they're growing? Wouldn't that save transportation costs and make the cost of furniture more competitive?
Harless says he has wanted to do something about the problem for a long time. He thinks the state needs to build its own wood products plants to show it can be done.
Harless proposes that the state invest in putting a wood products industrial park along Corridor G in Southern West Virginia. The park could include sawmills, lumber kilns, and some kind of secondary processing - like a flooring plant or a furniture fact ory, or maybe even both.
"I think that will work," Harless said. "But it's going to take the support of state government if it's going to work."
Not a new idea
Harless isn't the first to propose a state-supported wood products industrial park to jump-start value-added timber businesses. West Virginia Forestry School professors say the idea dates back years.
In 1988, five WVU forestry professors prepared a report called, "Design and Feasibility Analysis for a Wood Products Industrial Park" for the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The introduction to the report says it "presents an innovative design for a vertically integrated hardwood products industrial park, with secondary wood products enterprises centered around a primary manufacturing system composed of a sawmill, dry kiln, and lumber warehouse."
It would work something like this:
- Loggers working for outside companies would cut down trees and sell them to a development corporation. The development corporation, possibly a public-private partnership, would buy wood and operate sawmills, wood drying facilities and lumber warehouses .
- About 20 workers at an in-house sawmill would cut the logs into lumber. Doing this work as part of the park would provide lower raw material costs and better control over raw material flow and specifications. Excess low-grade lumber would be sold green to outside markets for ties, pallets and similar low-grade products.
- Another eight employees would work drying the lumber. Three more would work in the dry lumber warehouse.
- About 25 workers at two separate plants would process the dry lumber into various sizes of wooden pieces that could be used to make furniture or other products.
- A cabinet factory would employee another 28 workers a door and window manufacturer about 33.
- Another 34 workers would turn more dry lumber into household furniture. Twenty-eight more would produce industrial furniture. About 50 would make parts for modular homes.
- About 30 employees of the development corporation and common marketing company would help all parts of the park manage their operations and market their products.
"The marketing enterprises would be able to offer a variety of different wood products to the general market, thus enhancing its flexibility in its brokerage functions," the WVU report stated.
"Combining these related activities at a single location is the key to realizing maximum economic returns and full utilization of resources," the report said.
"Expenses for such things as raw material procurement, inventory, rehandling, and transportation are minimized, as are marketing costs for suppliers of intermediate products to other firms within the park."
The WVU report proposes an industrial park producing 5 million board feet of kiln-dried lumber. Such a product, the report estimates, would cost about $16.5 million. About $12 million of this is earmarked for financing the independent secondary manufactu rers, leaving only $4.5 million for startup of the development corporation and its manufacturing and marketing subsidiaries.
Financing the project
The report assumes a small amount of the corporation's money will be spent on buying land, building mills and preparing plant sites.
"This implies that the industrial site and any infrastructural improvements will necessarily be financed by some community, state or federal development authority and possibly leased to the development corporation on a long term basis," the WVU report st ates.
"This practice has become quite common as communities compete for economic development projects," the report says. "Consequently, there exist several alternative means of financing industrial park sites and improvements through public development organiz ations."
The report suggests funding could come from state Development Authority loans or local industrial development bonds. The federal government could also provide money from the Small Business Administration, or other federal grant programs, the report says.
"Obviously, West Virginia's entire wood industry cannot be restructured overnight," the WVU report says.
"But a process begun at a regional or community level can become a catalyst for broader change in the industry statewide," it says. "A properly planned, structured, and managed wood products industrial park can capture the economic potential inherent in West Virginia's timber resource and make valuable contributions to the local and regional economy."
Down to the nitty-gritty
Harless, a 77-year-old lifelong West Virginian, has an unusual meeting of the minds with state environmental groups. He questions the wisdom of huge pulp and chip board mills proposed or already operating in the state.
"I think we're reaching saturation point with them," Harless said. "They're all having trouble right now getting what trees they need."
Harless worries about the mills' huge appetite for small trees.
"This is a selfish thing from me, being a sawmill owner," Harless said.
"If you cut a tree when it's small, you're not going to get any big trees," Harless said. "I hope they're smart enough not to destroy the future of our forests."
Harless hopes to get the industrial park project off the ground sometime next year.
He has a site picked out on the old Ashland Coal Inc. strip mine along the Logan-Mingo county line. Georgia-Pacific, another of the state's timber giants, owns the land and is interested in the project.
The Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, of which Harless is a member, is looking to issue industrial development bonds to help with the project.
In all, Harless expects it to cost $50 million. More than $5 million alone would be needed for the water and sewer systems and other infrastructure improvements, Harless said.
"I'm not one who has ever advocated giving state money to my businesses, but this won't work without it," Harless said. "This is the first time we've ever gotten down to the nitty-gritty of the situation."
Out-of-state companies aren't going to take the chance of building an expensive furniture plant in West Virginia, Harless said.
"But if we build it ourselves, it's like they said - if we build it, they will come."
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