REEDSPORT — Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read got a glimpse of the economic powerhouse Fred Wahl Marine during a Thursday tour.
Read and members of his staff visited the plant last week, meeting with company owner Wahl, Jim Zimmer, Port of Umpqua's Charmaine Vitek, City Manager Jonathan Wright, Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice, Shaun Gibbs of the South Coast Development Council and others.
A key point in the visit was seeing construction on the vessel repair building, which was made possible through $3.4 million in ConnectOregon state dollars and private investment. Zimmer said Wahl Marine employees should have the building finished this September.
Getting the dollars
Essentially, the multi-million grant has helped fuel employee hiring at Fred Wahl Marine.
On Aug. 19, 2017, the Oregon Transportation Commission approved the funding. Competition was tough for these dollars. In all, citizens from around Oregon applied for 39 transportation projects. This particular one helps with intermodal transportation and of course, economic development. ConnectOregon grants are paid for with state dollars obtained from bond sales backed by lottery funds. The program requires a 30 percent match of the grant funding but according to Zimmer in an interview this last summer, Fred Wahl Marine poured in 61 percent matching dollars.
Zimmer explained that the original project total came to $9 million, of which $3.4 million was from state funds. That cost has now grown.
Just the vessel repair building will cost $2.5 million and will provide — among other positives — workers the chance to maintain and fix vessels regardless of coastal Oregon's rainy weather.
"The total project is right at $12 million," he said.
Wahl's plans also call for: a wash water recycling plant for vessels coming in from the Pacific; a 1,800 foot security fence around the property; floating dock and electrical yard improvements.
The vessel repair structure, along with offices, are on Bolon Island, the former home of American Bridge. Zimmer anticipates Wahl Marine employees will finish the structure this September.
The local response to Read's visit
Kim Clardy works at Fred Wahl Marine as the office manager and was among those hosting the State Treasurer's tour.
"It's just nice that they come down and recognize us. It's a small community," said Clardy, nodding to Read and his staff.
Zimmer expressed his pleasure and in an interview thanked several individuals.
"We really appreciate the support that those two have given us," he said, referring to Wright and Boice. "Jonathan, he's this way with everybody in town."
Plus Zimmer said Alex Campbell from Gov. Kate Brown's office was extremely helpful in moving the ConnectOregon project ahead. Campbell works as the regional solutions coordinator for the Southern Oregon Region out of Medford. Zimmer also thanked Democratic Rep. Caddy McKeown.
"We enjoy showing the place off and we've had a lot of support from local officials and I think it's great they come over and see. I think you pick up we're pretty proud of the place," Zimmer said. He does a number of jobs at the company but in the case of ConnectOregon, served as the grant project manager.
Of Campbell, Zimmer said "he's just been our go-to guy if things get held up at the state level."
"The Port of Umpqua — they all pushed for it," Zimmer emphasized. "They've been great support."
City leaders, Boice and others traveled to Salem and other meetings to urge support for the ConnectOregon grant this last year.
"The mayor was there. Jonathan was there," he said, referring to Mayor Linda McCollum.
In fact other Reedsport citizens took time off from work that day, heading up to the state capitol to lobby for support.
Read and the others received a tour of the plant plus outside operations.
Up by the visitor's entrance, Treasurer Read introduced himself to Wahl and there was some levity at times during the tour.
"Thanks for letting us invade and come and see what you do," Read said.
"I'm proud of what we do," Wahl said.
Boice pointed out efforts made to get together on the ConnectOregon grant, that made a vessel repair structure outside a reality.
"This is a good sign when everyone is sharing credit," Read said.
Thus far at the Bolon Island site, Wahl's employees have manufactured 48 vessels. There was some talk about a celebration for the 50th but Wright quipped "Fred's not into pomp and circumstance."
Vessel names such as "Progress" greeted visitors' eyes as the small group continued outside and toured another boat.
The various parties discussed other economic needs. Boice said some can't pass a drug test or they don't have the necessary job skills. Commissioner Boice said "finding a house for them too" is difficult, referring to a lack of affordable housing, and then looking over at Treasurer Read, he said "you're familiar with this."
Oregon Legislators took on affordable housing at this last session.
Clardy said the work crew keeps busy and noted the new hires. They had about 60 paychecks on average over by the Lower Umpqua Discovery Center. Thursday she printed 94 paychecks.
"There's no seasonal (employment)," said Clardy, who's worked at the company since 2011.
Zimmer points to good news from the corporation.
"When I started here in 2013, the company employed about 65 people pretty regularly," the grant manager said. Upon the application for the millions of dollars in ConnectOregon funds, the workforce in 2015 stood at about 80.
"And now we're consistently between 90 and 100," Zimmer said. "So that's pretty significant growth in a short amount of time. I don't think they made a bad investment choice at all (with ConnectOregon) because where are we (in staffing) -- (this) shows growth."
Clardy agreed with Boice, saying it's critical to find skilled people.
"Yeah, it's a bonus," Clardy emphasized. "If you can find somebody who's skilled."