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Oregon's small manufacturers grow under the radar

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Articles - October 2013
Monday, September 30, 2013
1013 Manufacturing 05
Above: Portland Bolt produces bolts ranging from 40 inches to 40 feet long.
Below: Applied Plastics Machining, a 12-person company, produces all things plastic — and from the scraps, makes the scuff boards that line the interiors of tractor trailers and railcars. This device is a vacuum hose for the recycling system.
// Photos by Adam Wickham 
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At the local level, basic manufacturers face an entirely separate set of challenges. Portland Bolt was located in the gritty neighborhood now known as the Pearl District for decades before condos and loft apartments began to appear, and neighbors began complaining about the noise and the forklifts crossing the road. The manufacturer moved deep within the Northwest industrial district in 1992 but has started witnessing the creep again.

“There’s plenty of industry right here, but it’s also starting to turn,” Todd says. “There are a lot of tile companies, a lot of businesses bringing in retail aspects. You can almost fast-forward another 20 years and we might have to move out.”

Tom Leaptrott of Columbia Forge & Machine Works, which employs about 32 people in a riverside factory under the St. Johns Bridge, sees a constant battle between manufacturing and residential needs. “It’s getting to be more of a problem as more people move back into the St. Johns area and more residential housing goes up,” he says, indicating the apartments under construction across the street.

In addition to land-use conflicts, many small manufacturers say they don’t find Oregon a politically welcoming place to do business. “The tax rate and political structure in Oregon are brutal,” says Jeff Sherman, president of Ridgeline Pipe Manufacturing, a PVC pipe maker in Eugene, citing particularly high income taxes. “Our political environment discourages me greatly as a business guy.”

On a local level in Portland, too, many business owners say they feel the city looks to earn revenue off businesses, charging them exorbitant prices for utilities like water, for example, rather than supporting them.

“The city of Portland is a tough business climate: everything from permitting to regulation,” says Leaptrott of Columbia Forge. “I have a business in St. Helens too, and that city was much easier to work with as far as permitting and incentives.”



+1 #1 VP of Marketing and Business DevelopmentGuest 2013-10-08 21:12:25
Thanks for the terrific article. As a manufacturer of trade show displays and retail environments (Classic Exhibits), I couldn't agree more with the folks interviewed. It's a tough market with lots of overseas competitors, but if you are nimble and creative and rely on a talented workforce, it's possible to thrive as a smaller manufacturer. There are no freebees.
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