Economic development advocate points to paper mill and plywood plant

The new Harbor Paper Co. has now hired about 100 full-time employees and steam is streaming from the Hoquiam facility again as it begins paper production for the first time in more than 15 months.

On the other side of town, the already reopened Hoquiam Plywood plant has exceeded employment projections, with about 84 people now working full time.

Greater Grays Harbor Inc. CEO Tim Gibbs provided those figures over the past two days in meetings with public officials across the Harbor.

He addressed the Hoquiam City Council Monday night and then the Port of Grays Harbor commissioners on Tuesday with a message that the local economy is showing signs of a sustained recovery for the first time since the former Grays Harbor Paper mill and the former employee-owned plywood facility closed down in 2011, ending jobs for more than 300 people in the combined operations.

Gibbs said he toured Hoquiam Plywood on Monday with Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney and City Administrator Brian Shay. In fewer than three months of operation, he said, the company has all of its finished product sold and ready to be shipped.

The number of people hired is more than what was expected when Pacific States Industries acquired the facility. The company currently has five trucks a day shipping product, Gibbs said.

At Harbor Paper, Gibbs said, “It’s nice to see the steam coming back out.” The plant began operating its boilers on Saturday, but still has a ways to go in reaching full employment and ultimately renewed paper production.

“There is still some work to be done there as far as training and getting people up to speed, and some other issues they need assistance with,” Gibbs said. “But it’s certainly a nice shot in the arm for our economy here.”

Gibbs noted that while the unemployment rate is still too high at just above 12 percent, he believes the numbers will come down as the wood products industry begins its rebound.

“We know that by no means should we pat ourselves on the back,” Gibbs said.

Greater Grays Harbor now is nine months old as an organization, he pointed out. The former Economic Development Council and Grays Harbor Chamber were merged into one body starting in January.

“We feel like we have had some successes and we are striving for some more,” Gibbs said.

With the two major Hoquiam-based employers up and running again, Gibbs said his regional economic development organization now is planning to help redefine Grays Harbor.

“We can no longer be lonely old Grays Harbor,” Gibbs said, noting that Seattle media often pay attention to events in the Harbor only when there is some sort of tragedy or plant closing.

“We want to redefine ourselves and say, ‘Look what is going on in the Harbor,’” he added. “Look at what we have. Look at our competitive advantage, look at the growth we are having here. We want to rebuild upon that success and we want to recast our lot and where we are going in the future.”

Responding to a question about the future of the former Lamb-Grays Harbor plant in Hoquiam, Gibbs noted the county needs to do more to promote its own data base of available industrial sites in the area. However, he said there has been some interest in the Lamb site, which has been closed since 2001.

“It’s certainly an opportunity for redevelopment, and it’s a pretty prime, strategically located piece,” Gibbs said.

At the Port on Tuesday, Gibbs announced a new advertising campaign to promote Grays Harbor in a new statewide promotional magazine. New signage also is going up at the main visitor center in Aberdeen, which has been cleaned up.

“We are taking a hard look at how we are presenting ourselves, because we get one chance to make a first impression,” Gibbs said.

On Oct. 29, there will be a celebration for the Harbor Paper reopening that is expected to include Gov. Chris Gregoire, Gibbs said.