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Rogue Valley plants keep busy

Expansion, new jobs expected

Manufacturers around the Rogue Valley are busy these days.

One new plant and one rebuilt plant expect to start production within the next month and several large players, including Eastman Kodak and Sabroso, are adding staff and planning to expand.

Other firms, most notably Praegitzer Industries and Darex Corp., have slowed somewhat, curbing growth and laying off workers in recent months.

But despite those setbacks, economists say the valley's manufacturing base looks strong and its future bright.

The industrial market, which is declining nationwide, is doing just fine here, says Bruce Laird of the Oregon Economic Development Department. We have such a large inventory of high-quality, industrial zoned ground that you are going to continue to see growth in that area.

State Employment Department projections show the number of manufacturing jobs in Jackson and Josephine counties growing from 12,510 in 1998 to 13,490 by 2008 -- a 7.8 percent increase that forecasters say is above average.

Most growth is expected outside the timber industry, long the backbone of area manufacturing. Lumber and wood are expected to lose 550 jobs. But the manufacturing of machinery, electronics and other durable goods is expected to bring 1,200 new jobs.

That continues a lengthy trend for Jackson County, according to state regional economist John Anderson. In 1998, about 9,220 Jackson County jobs were in manufacturing -- down slightly from 1988 levels when the timber industry was still going strong. Lumber and wood lost about 1,500 jobs during that time but other manufacturing growth nearly made up the deficit, Anderson says.

Evidence that manufacturing is healthy abounds at local plants.

Workers for the production line at White City's new CertainTeed plant started their 12-hour shifts this week. They are testing equipment and production is set to begin Sept. 1. The plant employs about 65 people, and orders for its product, fibercement siding made from wood pulp and cement, have been coming in.

Hopefully by Sept. — we'll be filling those orders, says Sandra Palmer, the plant's administrator.

Next door at the Eastman Kodak Health Imaging plant, 15 full-time employees have been added since the beginning of the year, bringing the plant's total to 360.

We're definitely in a growth mode here, says plant manager Brian Melchiori.

The plant recently got approval on a multi-million dollar expansion to add equipment over the next three years to meet increasing demand for its DryView medical laser imaging film.

At Sabroso Co. in Medford, the first stage of an expansion plan is finished and being tested. Production is set to begin within about 10 days. The expansion will increase the fruit-processing company's capacity by about 20 percent, says company president Jim Root. Sabroso has added 16 full-time employees in recent months.

Boise Cascade expects to start limited production at its rebuilt Medford plant on Monday. Area manager Dick Rudisile says equipment testing has gone smoothly. Production will start slowly, with workers being recalled as they are needed. The company hopes the plant will employ 300 by early next year.

And Rudisile says Boise's White City laminated veneer lumber plant has been running at full steam, with workers logging lots of overtime. The wood products sector has enjoyed a strong run lately thanks to higher lumber prices.

Employment counts at both Medford Fabrication (140 employees at two plants) and SRC Vision (167 employees) have remained steady and officials say they expect continued stability.

Not all the manufacturing news has been so rosy. Two firms that have grown in recent years scaled back some this summer.

Praegitzer Industries' White City plant laid off fifteen employees last month, leaving 377 workers. The cutbacks were part of a companywide restructuring plan to curb heavy losses. Plant officials say the White City plant's division is profitable and that moderate growth is expected this year.

Darex Corp. laid off 13 permanent workers in June, the first layoffs for the Ashland drill-bit sharpener manufacturer. Company officials couldn't be reached Wednesday to provide an update.

The biggest recent blow to manufacturing came earlier this month when Litton Inc. announced it will close its Applied Technology Division in Grants Pass, eliminating about 175 jobs.