COLUMBIA FALLS — Company officials from a leading transformer manufacturer in Brazil visited Columbia Falls on Dec. 12 to consider options for establishing a manufacturing plant locally and are casting a keen eye toward the former site of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company.
The owner of Brazil-based Comtrafo S.A. and the company’s chief financial officer have partnered with Andy Techmanski of Whitefish Energy Holdings to explore building a plant in North America, with a Flathead Valley location as their top choice. The thrust of their business plan is to develop a manufacturing plant that would construct and service power transformers, power line utilities and substations for regional utilities.
Techmanski estimated the plant would employ 1,000 workers at maximum market potential and 250 employees initially.
“This would position us as the only transformer manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest, and it is very much within our grasp,” Techmanski said. “The Flathead Valley is at the top of our list, and our first choice is the CFAC site.”
While touring the shuttered CFAC plant on Monday morning, Techmanski said the deserted manufacturing site, where CFAC once stood out as the community’s industrial backbone, “fits the blueprint” for the business plan because of its size, its proximity to a rail spur and the access it provides to an adequate power supply.
Adding a layer of complexity to the task of repurposing the site, however, is the property’s recent addition to the federal Superfund program’s National Priorities List. The decision by the U.S. Environmental Protect Agency was announced in September and is meant to ensure that the property’s owner, Glencore, a global commodities trading and mining giant based in Switzerland, will be held financially accountable for cleaning up any hazardous materials and addressing other environmental impacts.
Techmanski said he and his partners, Comtrafo owner Raphael Minato and CFO Irineu Minato, were still trying to navigate the finer points of the Superfund program and what constraints it might foist on their business plan, but they intend to conduct an upcoming site analysis.
After touring the CFAC site, the partners met with Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia and other members of the local business communities, including Jerry Meerkatz, director of Montana West Economic Development, and received strong support.
Nicosia said she was encouraged by the potential for job growth in an economy still reeling from Weyerhaeuser Company’s decision to close its lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls in August, displacing roughly 100 workers. Another 50-100 positions are expected to be lost at Weyerhaeuser’s administrative headquarters by the end of this year.
Discussions are still in the preliminary stages, and city officials must explore what kind of incentives and tax breaks they might be able to provide Whitefish Energy, but Nicosia said she looked forward to working with the company.
“Obviously with that kind of prospective employment, when you’re talking between 250 and 1,000 new jobs, we are very much looking forward to working with them,” she said. “The opportunity to provide good stable employment, not only for Columbia Falls but the whole Flathead Valley, is a very exciting prospect, and we will work with them in any way we can.”
Techmanski said Whitefish Energy is in the process of developing a “Montana Industrial Economic Development Initiative” and plans on presenting it to Gov. Steve Bullock in the coming weeks in hopes of convincing the state to issue seed money grants, guarantee bonds and offer income tax breaks or credits.
In order to justify building a manufacturing plant, Techmanski estimated the company would need to generate $15 million to $20 million in backorders. He said he hopes regional utilities like Northwestern Energy, Montana Dakota Utilities, Flathead Electric, PacifiCorp, and others will come online with interest, explaining that a manufacturing center in their backyard would be mutually beneficial.
The plant would be the only such facility in the region capable of manufacturing 345 kilovolt power transformers, and Techmanski said the workforce to run the plant already exists in Columbia Falls.
“Montana needs some good job news and we are trying to ignite that with our plans,” he said. “We believe a lot of the core skills we need we can harness here in the valley, and that are left over from the previous factory and logging layoffs.”