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Grand Rapids plans eco-industrial park

By Scott Carlson
Dolan Media Newswires

Minneapolis — Two years after the closing of a 400,000-square-foot lumber factory in Grand Rapids, Minn., the city is gearing up to turn that site into an eco-industrial park.

The Itasca Economic Development Corp., which owns the former Ainsworth Lumber Co. plant, is marketing the 223-acre site as the future home for eco-related companies, including makers of wind turbines, solar panels and LEED-certified products.

Itasca EDC officials estimate that transforming the site — a project that includes demolition, environmental cleanup and retrofitting for new businesses — will cost more than $5 million. Officials of the private nonprofit group said they are close to raising all of that money from public and private sources.

After Ainsworth closed its oriented strand board plant in 2008, eliminating about 200 jobs, “we had interest from prospective companies to do something with the site,” said Diane Weber, interim president of the Itasca EDC. “But no one needs 223 acres or 400,000 square feet of buildings.

“We had a better chance to get new industry if we acquired the property and marketed it as a multitenant industrial park,” said Weber, who declined to reveal how much her group paid for the site.

Since buying the Ainsworth property last year, the Itasca EDC has secured some state grants to investigate, develop and implement plans to clean up some minor environmental contamination on the site.

This month, Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development officials said the department had awarded the Grand Rapids Economic Development Authority $56,250 to clean up petroleum and other toxins at the Ainsworth site. The Itasca Eco Industrial Park LLC will pay remaining cleanup costs, according to DEED.

“Most of the cleanup is above ground,” including lead paint and asbestos removal, Weber said. “There is very little subsurface contamination on the site.”

The eco-industrial park is expected to create 70 jobs and increase the tax base by $110,430, according to DEED.

“The objective is to bring good-paying jobs back to the community,” said Rob Mattei, Grand Rapids community development director.

Weber said any jobs created from the eco-industrial park would be a boon for Itasca County, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent, nearly twice the statewide figure.

“When Ainsworth made the decision to permanently shut the plant, we lost 200 direct jobs,” she said, noting than an additional 200 to 400 indirect jobs were lost due to the plant closing. “People are eking out a living as best as they can, hoping for an opportunity. (Many of) those people are still here.”

Mike Twite, a former Ainsworth environmental manager who now has his own consulting business called Headwaters Environmental, said the eco-industrial park might yield jobs for some former Ainsworth employees.

“For my business, the industrial park would be a source of potential clients,” said Twite, who has several times helped show the former Ainsworth plant to prospective tenants.

The EDC has escorted nearly two dozen parties through the former plant in the past six months. Two out-of-state companies, both eco-related businesses, are considering setting up shop in the industrial park, Weber said. Although she did not identify them, Weber said one is a larger firm, the other a startup.

“One company we have been working with over a year,” Weber said. “What is holding them back (from taking space in the industrial park) is the market and the economy. Their expansion is predicated on turnaround in demand for their product.

“The other company is a startup,” Weber said, “and they are still evaluating the feasibility of using the property for their production.”

Meanwhile, the EDC is also weighing how many of the old lumber plant buildings to demolish. EDC officials said they expect to receive bids the first week of August and complete any demolition work by year end.

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