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BONNER – An Oregon manufacturing firm has broken ground on a new fabrication plant here and expects to open this fall, giving the company greater access to markets in the Midwest and Canada.

Harris Thermal Transfer Products, based in Newberg, expects to hire 30 specialized welders when it opens as Harris Manufacturing on the 116-acre Bonner site, taking a small step toward restoring Missoula’s beleaguered manufacturing base.

“What we’re going to do is mirror our company in Oregon and get a little further north and toward the middle of the country,” said Harris general manager Eric Groenweghe. “It opens up the east side of the U.S., where we weren’t competitive because we had to ship so far, and it opens up the north into Canada.”

Harris Manufacturing, which completes work for a wide variety of industries that include petrochemical, pulp and paper and water treatment, has turned to local companies to construct and fit the new plant.

It’s also looking to Missoula College to help train the workforce needed for precision welding. The company will provide the college’s welding program with equipment and train staff to teach the techniques used to fabricate Harris’ range of products.

“We’re working with them to set up a program to get good, trained employees, and we want to help them teach the students the skills they need,” Groenweghe said. “We hope it’ll help bring back some of the employee manufacturing base that used to be in Missoula.”

Over the past 18 months, Missoula has made strides in replacing the estimated 500 skilled jobs lost after the closure of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. and Stimson Lumber mills.

Last year, ALCOM filled a 70,000 square-foot manufacturing facility at the former lumberyard to build trailers. The former mill is also home to Northwest Factory Finishes, as well as Willis Enterprises, a wood-chipping operation.

Steve Nelson, who co-owns the property under Bonner Property Development with Mike Boehme, said the hub now employs 135 workers directly and supports another 75 counting loggers, truckers and welding suppliers.

Nelson said the location off Montana Highway 200 and Interstate 90 remains attractive and has aided in filling the once-vacant yard with new industries.

“The corridor from Bonner to Sweet Grass is very enticing to people looking north, just as I-90 is east to the Bakken oil fields,” Nelson said. “Both of those, we believe, will show dividends for us in the future.”

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Harris Manufacturing noticed the opportunity in the location as well. Groenweghe said the company conducted a national search and explored cities across Montana before settling on Missoula.

Groenweghe said Harris liked what the city offered and believes the new plant and its location will provide the company better access to growing markets.

“We were building some big equipment that has shipped up into Canada,” said Groenweghe. “Getting a little closer to that border cuts the shipping costs from Oregon dramatically. The other factor was it opens up other markets for us in other parts of the country.”

At its spring meeting, the Missoula Economic Partnership said it expected several new manufacturing firms to locate to Missoula this year. James Grunke, president and CEO of the partnership, was pleased Harris chose to expand here.

“Manufacturing jobs are key to our economic diversity,” Grunke said. “Missoula was traditionally a blue-collar town. When we lose manufacturing jobs like we did in the early 2000s, we have to do everything we can to get those back.”

Groenweghe said Harris will complete its 34,000-square-foot plant before fall. The 116 acres are largely zoned as heavy industrial, and Harris will explore subdividing the larger parcel to accommodate future support businesses.

While gearing up, Harris has used Missoula companies when possible, including its primary contractor, Carl Construction, and site work done by the WGM Group. Harris is banking with First Interstate and pursued the land through Properties 2000.

“Welding and fabrication – I’ll call it a dying art,” Groenweghe said. “It’s more than just a skill and we really emphasize quality. We’re willing to train employees in house, and we’ll start them from the ground up.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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