The Northwest Oregon Economic Alliance in May awarded a total of more than a quarter million dollars in state grants to Boise Cascade LLC to implement a comprehensive employee training at its St. Helens paper mill and to the Port of Tillamook Bay to fund facility improvements at the Port's industrial park.

The NOEA Board, at its meeting May 4 in Vernonia, approved a $200,000 grant to Boise Cascade and a combined $75,000 in grant funds to the Port of Tillamook. The grant program, administered through the Northwest Oregon Economic Alliance Regional/Rural Investment Program, is funded by the Oregon State Lottery.

Self-managed work teams

Boise Cascade will use its grant funds to implement a training program for employees at its St. Helens mill in techniques to create self-managed work teams where more traditional supervisor-led groups have been utilized, according to Dick Roberts, the mill's human resources manager.

Roberts said the Breakthrough Project Implementation (BPI) program trains front-line employees to identify waste and inefficiencies, and streamline processes that will reduce costs, make work stations more efficient, improve product quality, and enhance worker safety.

"The BPI program is another step in a series of efforts to keep the St. Helens mill operating in the face of higher costs for energy and wood chips that have plagued the region's pulp and paper mills for the past year," Roberts said.

Through a series of major cost-cutting efforts that started last October, the paper mill has been able to maintain operations without any layoffs, although there currently is a freeze on filling positions that open as a result of retirements or other attrition. As of early May, the St. Helens mill employed just over 475 workers, down from 504 employed at the end of 2006, said Diane Dillard, a mill spokeswoman.

"BPI will equip the current work force to become much more competitive," she said.

"Over time, expectations are that the improved competitive position will keep the St. Helens mill viable," Roberts said in its application for the NOEA grant.

Tillamook port facilities to be improved

The Port of Tillamook Bay will use funds from two NOEA grants to prepare buildings in the port's industrial park for two small manufacturing companies that are relocating part of their operations to the port property, said Jack Crider, the port's general manager.

Crider said a $45,000 NOEA grant will be used to upgrade facilities on a five-acre portion of the industrial park for USIA, a St. Helens-based U.S. Department of Defense contractor.

A separate $30,000 grant will fund improvements to buildings that will be leased to Creative Kingdom, a Garibaldi-based manufacturer of interactive play equipment for amusement parks, Crider said.

Boat-building, dry-suit sewing on site

USIA, which started operations in Southeast Portland in 1987 and moved to St. Helens in 1991, makes dry-suits and specially-designed watercraft for the U.S. military and various law enforcement agencies.

Owner Kim Johns said the company has outgrown its space in St. Helens and was looking for property where it could expand a part of its production.

Johns said the company will use the Tillamook site to prepare thermal underliners for its dry-suits. The company also will assemble its watercraft on the site. Components for the vessels are built at various locations throughout the U.S.

"There was nothing available in (the St. Helens) area where we could expand, and Tillamook seemed like the best fit. It has the available workforce and enough space to grow," Johns told Coast River Business Journal. "And the port has been extremely accommodating."

He said the company already has hired four seamstresses from the Tillamook area and three workers for its boat assembly. The company originally forecasted creating a total of nine new jobs at the Tillamook site, but Johns said that number may be too low as USIA obtains additional contracts.

The company has 45 employees at its St. Helens facility, which will not be affected by the Tillamook operation, Johns said.

Special effects for interactive game

Creative Kingdom of Garibaldi plans to use the 10,500 square foot Port of Tillamook Bay facility to build special effects for its MagiQuest game, a live-action video game where participants use a "magic" wand to complete mystical, medieval-themed adventures, according to Fred Franz, a company founder and vice president. The game is produced for family entertainment centers and theme parks.

Franz created Creative Kingdom in 2000. While most of the components for the game are manufactured by subcontractors across the country, the company's design team and headquarters have been based on property Franz owns near Garibaldi.

"It's just become too crowded for us here," he said.

Franz said the company expects to move to the port property in June. He anticipates having 12 workers employed after the move, up from the 10 the company currently employs at its present site.

Ironically, the site Creative Kingdom is moving to was the former home for SCS Interactive, which Franz started. SCS designed and built equipment for water parks. He later sold the company to Koala Playgroup and the company has since ceased business.

NOEA grants go for job retention, creation

Mary McArthur, NOEA executive director, said the three projects awarded grants were examples of the types of programs her agency was created to support.

"Our mission is to help companies create and retain jobs," McArthur said.

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