Old growth

Some traditional industries are reviving in Southwest Virginia

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“I like to say we live in the wood basket of the Southeast,”
says Lori Deel. Photo by Tim Cox

Smyth County isn’t in Virginia’s coalfields, but it has felt the effects of the mining industry’s decline. 

In the last days of 2016, Pittsburgh-based Kennametal Inc. closed its coal-mining cutting tools plant in Chilhowie,  eliminating 89 jobs. 

Not long after that, local workers learned that operations at the Titan Wheel plant in Saltville would be moved to the company’s Quincy, Ill., plant, eliminating another 50 jobs. The plant makes wheels for equipment used in strip mining.

“One of the employees that is losing his job [at the Saltville plant] has been there 42 years,” says Lori Deel, Smyth County’s director of community and economic development. “It’s a big loss for us.”

When the coal industry began to decline, “I knew our area wouldn’t feel it until later on,” Deel says. Later on is now.

The county has other manufacturing employers, including General Dynamics and TRW. But in addition to the coal-mining-related jobs, it has lost many jobs in more traditional industries, particularly textiles and woodworking, which used to dominate the local economy.  In 2015, for example, Sure-Wood Forest Products closed its Chilhowie plant, and nearly 90 people lost their jobs.

But not all the news about traditional manufacturing is bad. Idaho-based Woodgrain Millwork Inc. is adding 17 jobs to its 140-person workforce in Marion, and a new owner, Georgia-based EverMark LNL, has reopened the former Sure-Wood plant.

“[Woodgrain is] a great company to have here,” says Deel.

But getting the company to expand in Smyth took some persuading.  The company was considering shifting some operations from Marion to its plant in Lenoir, N.C.

“When they started talking about maybe expanding their facility in North Carolina and cutting here, we kind of buckled down and convinced them to do it here,” Deel says.

The company received a $100,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Agriculture, matched by local funds, and $75,000 from the Tobacco Region Opportunity Fund. In return, Woodgrain committed to invest $1.86 million in the plant and to spend more than $4.6 million on Virginia lumber during the next three years.

“So this project was not only important to support the expansion Woodgrain Millwork needed to do, but it also had the ripple effect and was positive for many of the lumber companies throughout the region and across Virginia,” Deel says.

Woodgrain has plants in the U.S. from Oregon to Georgia, and one facility in Chile. Woodgrain’s Marion plant, which makes floor and window components, began operations in 1996 with 35 employees.

Meanwhile, EverMark , the new owner of the former Sure-Wood plant in Chilhowie, reopened it with about 25 employees. The plant, now called Innovative Millwork Technologies, produces millwork for the housing industry.

“EverMark was quick to come in and kind of pick up where Sure-Wood left off and fortunately, they were able to keep a lot of the employees from Sure-Wood. Their processes are very similar,” Deel says. “It worked out great.”

Deel is convinced her part of Southwest Virginia will be a perfect fit for wood products companies for a long time. 

“I think one thing that is important is we still have a lot of the workforce that is trained in that kind of traditional manufacturing setting,” Deel says. “I like to say we live in the wood basket of the Southeast.”

Southwest Virginia’s recent deals

Company Location #Jobs
Frontier Secure Wise County 500
AT&T Wireless Russell County 90
Native Cloud Virginia Scott County 72
TRW Smyth County 60
Branch Botanicals Wythe County 40
NPB Digital Bank Russell County 35
Consolidated Glass and Mirror Galax 30
Innovative Millwork Technologies Smyth County 20
Woodgrain Millwork Smyth County 17
Somic America Wythe County 15

Source:  Virginia Economic Development Partnership, 2016.

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