Updated: Oct. 16, 4 p.m.
SmartLam Technologies Group, a rapidly growing wood products manufacturer, is expanding its operations and headquarters to the former Weyerhaeuser lumber mill property in Columbia Falls, according to company officials.
The company plans to move into the shuttered site by Jan. 1, 2018, and significantly expand its manufacturing operations for cross-laminated timber, or CLT, with a “state-of-the-art equipment line,” SmartLam officials told the Beacon.
As part of the sizable local development, SmartLam will hire more than 75 new employees by the end of 2019, according to the company.
The deal will breathe life into the former heart of the Plum Creek timber empire and help fuel the meteoric rise of an engineered wood product that is increasingly gaining traction as an innovative building material.
SmartLam plans to quadruple the company’s production from roughly 20,000 cubic meters annually to more than 80,000 with the new facility. The expanded site will also help the company develop additional types of products in the growing world of engineered wood products.
“As more architects and builders learn about the performance and efficiency of CLT, demand for our products has accelerated rapidly,” Casey Malmquist, president and general manager of SmartLam, said.
“We have been looking for the right location to continue to grow our company as we launched it, mindful of the available resources, positioned optimally to receive locally-sourced raw materials, and accessible to multiple modes of transportation. This site is the right home for us.”
The announcement signals a significant local victory for an innovative company that has enjoyed enormous growth since emerging five years ago as the nation’s first commercial manufacturer of CLT, an increasingly popular building material product that consists of wood panels stacked in alternating directions and bonded with adhesive.
“We couldn’t be more delighted. We’re grateful that they made that choice,” Jerry Meerkatz, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, said.
Meerkatz said MWED helped write grant applications for SmartLam as its company structure expanded in recent years with the goal of keeping a successful manufacturer in the Flathead Valley.
“This helps cement the fact that Flathead County is a great manufacturing environment,” Meerkatz said. “We want to see companies like SmartLam invest in our community and our community to make investments in them.”
The production of CLT has the potential to create significant job growth across the Pacific Northwest, according to a study published this summer in Oregon.
In 2012, Malmquist co-founded SmartLam with three parties, including John Lesar and Western Building Center, in a warehouse attached to WBC in Columbia Falls. A year ago the local company reached a sizable milestone by receiving certification for its engineered wood products from the American National Standards Institute, the leading organization that sets health and safety standards for business products and services in the U.S.
The company sources wood for its manufacturing processes from regional forest vendors within 200 miles of its Columbia Falls plant and produces more than 1 million board feet of CLT each month, according to officials. The company’s products have shipped to projects across North America, including Calgary, Arizona, North Carolina and Kansas. The company has continued to gain certifications that allow its materials to be incorporated into new projects, while state and federal regulations increasingly adapt to the product.
SmartLam’s remarkable rise created challenges as the local manufacturer outgrew its facility and required additional space to serve the growing demand. A year ago, Malmquist told the Beacon that his company had attracted suitors in states across the U.S. that were trying to entice the business away from Montana.
At the time, Malmquist said, “My heart wants us to be in Montana.”
His wishes have come true.
In late September, Ruis Holdings, owned by Columbia Falls investor Mick Ruis, and Stargazer Land and Cattle purchased the 40-acre Weyerhaeuser Co. property, one of two pieces of sizable real estate listed for sale by the Seattle-based timber giant.
Weyerhaeuser, which merged with Plum Creek in early 2016, listed the shuttered mill site for sale for an undisclosed amount in July. The company has also listed a separate 24-acre property that includes the former headquarters building known as the Cedar Palace. Flathead County recently expressed interest in the Cedar Palace property but backed off this week.
SmartLam signed a long-term lease to occupy a section of the 40-acre lumber mill site, Malmquist said.
Columbia Rising, an LLC formed in partnership by Ruis Holdings and Stargazer Land and Cattle, intends to redevelop the remainder of the property into a rail-served industrial park that could suit additional entities.
According to the investment group, it was formed “to invest in industrial redevelopment opportunities in the Flathead Valley, and it intends to develop the site as a rail-served industrial park serving businesses of the greater Flathead Valley.”
Columbia Rising plans to develop seven or more multi-acre sites available for lease or purchase within the next few months, the group said. Each site will provide either direct or shared rail access among other infrastructure.
“Columbia Rising is committed to propelling economic development in the greater Flathead Valley, and we are excited for the future opportunities that this latest acquisition will bring to both the businesses that occupy it and the local community,” the group said in a statement sent to the Beacon on Oct. 16.