Reedsport boatbuilders get big state grant

REEDSPORT — A company that builds commercial fishing boats in Reedsport netted a $3.4 million grant from the state this month, positioning itself to expand its workforce by 50 percent in the coming years.

Fred Wahl Marine Construction, currently the biggest private employer in the coastal city, won the grant through the Oregon Department of Transportation and its ConnectOregon program. Its award was the second highest monetary award after an $8.3 million grant given to Union Pacific for railroad improvements.

The award allows the company to begin work on a nine-story facility on Bolon Island, between Reedsport and Gardiner. The new building will be designed to be large enough to take on a bigger workload. The new facility would also take shipbuilding and repair work out of the rain when necessary. The company recently bought a six-story, 200-ton lift to haul boats out of the water and carry them into the proposed building. Once it’s completed, the company expects its roster of 91 employees to grow to about 130.

Jim Zimmer, the company’s lead on the project, said the firm hopes to get the new complex built by spring 2018 and will hire new employees intermittently. The project has an $8.7 million price tag, of which the company put up $5.3 million when applying for the grant.

“We’re pretty excited about it, to tell you the truth,” Zimmer said. “The idea is that we would be able to pick the boats out of the water, drive them into this building, close the doors and it wouldn’t matter what the weather is doing. We can sandblast, paint, work on it in a nice environment.”

The promise of growth is exciting for Reedsport officials as well, who have watched manufacturers jump ship since the 1990s. International Paper shuttered its Reedsport mill in 1999, taking away about 900 jobs, according to City Manager Jonathan Wright. A handful of other companies in the wood products industry have also closed. Adding 40 new family-wage jobs in town, Wright said, is like adding 300 jobs in the Portland-metro area.

“From a city manager perspective, that’s all you can ever hope for,” Wright said. “Anytime we can build jobs back, especially ones like Fred Wahl Marine’s (jobs), which are family-wage jobs with benefits, that’s a huge deal.”

Zimmer said he could feel the community standing behind the project as it was presented to committees in Douglas County and in Salem, as part of the process to get approved for grant funding.

“We had people, just local residents, that took time out of their day and traveled to Salem to go to a meeting with us, and (a meeting) in Roseburg,” Zimmer said. "We had like 20 people at the meeting in Roseburg, and they were just normal citizens. They weren’t public officials or anything."

The marine building was one of 39 selected by a committee to receive a combined $49.5 million for projects ranging from fixing up airports to building multi-use paths to improving moorage in Astoria. In a press release issued last week, ODOT said 75 projects applied and requested a total of $88 million.

ConnectOregon was established in 2005 by the State Legislature to help fund projects that improve non-highway modes of travel: marinas, ports, airports, bus systems, railroads, bike paths and more. This was the sixth round ConnectOregon has granted funds. In all, 180 projects have been awarded more than $380 million, according to ODOT.

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