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Lumber mills buzzing again in Louisiana

Kate Archer Kent Jul 1, 2013

Lumber mills buzzing again in Louisiana

Kate Archer Kent Jul 1, 2013

The largest plywood plant in North America, RoyOMartin, can be found in Chopin, La. Its sprawling plywood mill spans 18 acres under roof, and produces enough lumber to build 15,000 homes a year. The family-owned wood products manufacturer has been in business for 90 years, surviving the Great Depression and multiple recessions.

In recent years, many lumber mills went dark as the housing market collapsed, according to RoyOMartin chief operating officer Scott Poole.

“It wasn’t a trickle down. It was a fall off the cliff. It was a mad race to try to match usage with production and a lot of the mills closed permanently,” he says, during an interview at the RoyOMartin plant.

Now, some of these shuttered mills are being bought up and reopened. If only it were a flick of a switch. The whole supply chain was battered by the recession, including equipment makers who supply the sawmills.

Rich Vlosky, director of the Louisiana Forest Products Development Center at Louisiana State University, says there’s a bottleneck right now in equipment orders. He expects a gradual recovery for his industry. The challenge is it’s hard to see into the future.

“It takes some time — often a couple of years — to get a line installed or a new plant built,” Vlosky says.

Louisiana is half-forest in the heart of it is the tiny town of Urania. Its elders are affectionately called “knotheads.” The town lost its plywood mill in 2002. Now, a German wood pellet maker is moving in and promising hundreds of new jobs.

One of those knotheads, Mayor Terri Corley, says residents had to move away to find work. Many went to offshore oil rigs. It nearly killed the town.

“If someone had told me when LP closed that we would still be a town 13 years later, I would have never believed it. God has blessed us so much we can’t ask for more,” Corley says, between helping customers fill their prescriptions at Urania Drug Store where she works her other job as a pharmacy technician.

At the Chopin plywood plant, many workers are bussed in from nearby towns, a benefit that’s subsidized by RoyOMartin. The company can find plant workers, but getting enough log trucks in each day is tough. Loggers retired in droves during the housing collapse. New workers are not getting into forestry because it takes several million dollars to get up and running. Poole said it’s hard to take on new risk in a wishy-washy economy.

“Do I want to go spend a half million dollars for this new piece of equipment and spend the next five years trying to pay it off when I’m at an age where I’d like to retire?” Poole says.

Poole is okay with new risk. He’ll be adding at least 24 new workers to this plant of more than 700, and paying for more machinery that’s on order. What he wants is for more stability.

“From the homebuyers, to the banks, to the other manufacturers in this business, we need a level of discipline that can sustain slow, solid growth instead of these kneejerk reactive markets,” he says.

The Chopin plant is in the midst of a $20 million expansion to produce more 4x4s for the housing market. That new production line should be running by this time next year.

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