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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Atlas Mill closure to cost 120 jobs

Mike Rieken, Atlas Mill's lead electrician and a worker there for 23 years, will be among those to lose their jobs. He said he'll apply for work at Stimson's other operations.
 (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Mike Rieken, Atlas Mill's lead electrician and a worker there for 23 years, will be among those to lose their jobs. He said he'll apply for work at Stimson's other operations. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The Atlas Mill, a fixture on Coeur d’Alene’s waterfront, will close at the end of the year, putting 120 people out of work.

Growing consumer preferences for vinyl siding and composite decking were a key factor in the decision to mothball the mill, said Andrew Miller, Stimson Lumber Co.’s chief executive officer.

The mill on Seltice Way makes cedar and pine boards for siding, fencing, decking and trim. In recent years, wood composites and vinyl emerged as formidable competitors, eroding the mill’s profits, Miller said.

“It’s kind of like getting nicked to death,” he said. Based on market trends, “we couldn’t see anything that looked hopeful.”

Dec. 31 is the last scheduled day of operations at the Atlas Mill. By the end of January, auctioneers will arrive to sell off machinery and other pieces of the 96-year-old mill. And by the end of June, the warren of industrial green buildings along the Spokane River will be gone.

Bob Edwards contemplated the news Friday over a cigarette on his lunch break at the mill.

“I think this business is not very good to be in these days,” he said.

Edwards, 47, has worked at the mill for three years. He earns $13 to $17 an hour, depending on whether he’s operating machinery, running a forklift or part of the cleanup crew.

After the mill closes, Edwards said, he’ll turn a part-time tile business into full-time work. Many of his co-workers, however, know only work at the mill.

Mike Rieken has spent 23 years at the Atlas Mill. He put three kids through college on his wages and now earns about $70,000 working 55-hour weeks as the mill’s lead electrician.

Rieken plans to apply for electrician jobs at the company’s other operations in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. “I still hope to retire with Stimson,” he said. “It’s been a good company to work for.”

The loss of the jobs will likely affect the local economy.

The Atlas Mill’s annual payroll is nearly $4 million. The average annual pay is around $32,500, plus benefits. Workers will receive up to 12 weeks of severance pay, depending on their time with the company. Their health insurance will last until March 31.

In addition, Stimson is in the midst of filing a petition with the U.S. Department of Labor in an effort to secure federal benefits for workers who want to retrain for another career. Several workers said they would consider that option, including 22-year-old J.J. Jess. He’s received pink slips from two North Idaho mills in one year.

Miller said Stimson is also encouraging workers to transfer to other company mills as jobs open up, including its Arden, Wash., operation, where its remaining pine and cedar production will be consolidated.

Atlas Mill nearly a century old

The Atlas Mill was established in 1909 by Marcus Wright, an entrepreneur who made his fortune supplying railroad ties to the Northern Pacific Railroad. The mill became part of Idaho Forest Industries, which was sold to Portland-based Stimson in late 2000.

The mill’s demise follows industry trends.

Specialty cedar and pine production has become a fading business in the Northwest, said Paul Ehinger, a forestry consultant in Eugene, Ore. Many mills phased out their operations as high-quality logs got harder to find. The remaining producers find themselves competing with pine imports from Europe and South America, as well as wood composites and vinyl.

HardyBoard, a cement and wood mixture, is one composite product that competes with cedar siding, Ehinger said.

“It may be that people aren’t interested in paying the price for solid wood,” he said. “Generally speaking, it’s a fading deal. There’s not nearly the volume there used to be.”

DeArmond Mill won’t be affected

Miller said Friday’s announcement does not impact Stimson’s DeArmond Mill on Northwest Boulevard in Coeur d’Alene, which employs 130 people. The DeArmond mill produces framing lumber, a commodity whose demand has risen with the surges in new homes.

Miller also said that Stimson is still negotiating with North Idaho developer Marshall Chesrown over the purchase of its two riverfront mill sites. Earlier this year, the two parties announced that they had a working agreement in which Chesrown would purchase the two mill sites for waterfront development and build a replacement mill in another location.

Stimson’s wood remanufacturing operation in Hauser was named as the logical choice at the time. But the company is also considering other sites for a DeArmond mill relocation, Miller said.

A large, state-of-the-art mill in Hauser would set off a scramble for logs in North Idaho’s already tight log market, he said. With transportation costs skyrocketing, the company also has to consider the most cost-effective place for trucking logs in and products out.

The DeArmond Mill will operate in its current location through at least 2008, Miller said.

“We have a strong desire to relocate that mill in North Idaho … How or when we do it, I don’t know.”

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