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White City plant nears closure

WHITE CITY — Jack Lewis will spend the next week closing the Timber Products plywood plant on Agate Road while he struggles to find a new job in a county hard hit by high unemployment.

"We're just locking it up, and we're done," said the 55-year-old maintenance superintendent, who has worked at two timber products operations in White City over the past 24 years. "I'm being laid off."

The Medford man worked for Burrill Lumber across the street for 22 years as a maintenance superintendent before landing the same job at Timber Products two years ago. "I've been doing this a long time," he said.

Timber Products Co. will move its Southern Oregon softwood plywood production to Grants Pass, leaving only two remaining plywood plants in White City.

On the same street as Timber Products, Boise Cascade, Royal Oak Charcoal and Burrill Lumber have all shut their doors in recent years.

Springfield-based Timber Products officials said 14 of the 44 workers at the plant likely will lose their jobs.

The plant made specialty plywood that was thick enough to support diesel engines as well as other construction plywood used in floors and walls.

Of the workers remaining, 28 will go to the Grants Pass plant or to the Spectrum Division, which makes decorative laminates on Avenue G in White City. Two others will be reassigned elsewhere in the company.

Tracy Wills, a 70-year-old caretaker of the former Burrill Lumber plant, gazed down Agate Road, which more and more resembles a ghost town, and shook his head at the closure of the Timber Products Co. plywood plant Wednesday.

"It's going to be a hardship for the whole community," Wills said.

Wills stacked old pallets with his forklift next to Agate Road, making it easier for people to collect some firewood in these tough economic times.

Wills, who has worked in the timber industry since he was 17, and other local residents reacted with alarm to the news that another wood products company has shut its doors, striking another blow to what had been a strong economic base for the community.

Wills, who said he lives in a shack on the Burrill property, said a combination of timber policies and the economy have hit the local industry hard.

"Why make a product if you can't sell it?" Wills said.

Like other local residents, he blames federal regulations that have put much of the forests off-limits.

"I think it's stupid," said Wills. "There's so much timber in this country."

Eagle Point resident Jaime Harra, who was picking up some of the pallets, said it was a surprise to hear the Timber Products plant was closing.

"I think it's really unfortunate," the 28-year-old said. "Some friends of mine were laid off from there."

She said one of her friends is going back to school to get retraining, but is upset at finding himself among the growing ranks of the unemployed.

"It's too bad when you have a family and lose a job," Harra said.

Dave Schott, of the Southern Oregon Timber Industries Association. said there are only two remaining plywood mills in White City, one owned by Murphy Veneer and the other by Boise.

Timber Products also has a Medford plant that produces cabinet-grade plywood.

The demand for plywood is down markedly because housing construction has been crippled by the recession, Schott said.

Single-family and multiple-family residential building has declined from more than 2.1 million units annually to little more than 500,000 this year.

With the closure of the White City plant, Schott said it means the area is rapidly losing its critical mass of wood production facilities.

"It's another nail in the coffin," he said.

In downtown White City, residents shook their heads at the news.

"That's going to hurt businesses around here," said Brian Cassen, a 48-year-old veteran who lives at the Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics. "It's sad to see that it's going to shut down. The percentage of homelessness is going to go up, and people are going to be begging to feed their kids."

Lewis said he's already looking for a job in the same field and can't afford to stay on unemployment for too long.

Despite how difficult it is to find a job right now, Lewis said he will just keep working at it.

"It's been a couple of weeks since I found out," he said. "The shock is over. The emotions you through are pretty much over. You're in a survival mode and you go out and find another job."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

Tracy Wills, 70, caretaker at the former Burrill Lumber mill, said the closing of Timber Products across the street will be a hardship on the White City community. Bob Pennell / Mail Tribune photo - Bob Pennell