Simpson pulling up stakes is painful

Shelton was always a company town. For most of the 20th century, Simpson Timber Co.’s logging and mill operations were synonymous with the city’s industrial waterfront and the forest economy of rural Mason County.

That era is over now, and this week Mason County’s struggling economy got another clear, urgent message. It needs to diversify, or reinvent its economic identity, and its workforce needs retraining opportunities.

Some 270 jobs at Simpson’s mills in Shelton and Dayton are going away by June 30 as Simpson sells those operations to a Northern California firm, Sierra Pacific Industries.

The Shelton mill could be replaced by a new state-of-the-art mill employing about 150 to 200 people in 2017, which Sierra Pacific says it intends.

A new mill would be welcome but don’t hold your breath: There is no guarantee that Simpson employees, many of whom now belong to a Machinists union local, would be rehired — or paid as well in what is likely to be a nonunion shop.

This news lands right after Olympic Panel Products’ sale to an Oregon company that likely will cost 238 Shelton jobs over the next year, according to the Mason County Economic Development Council.

In effect, Simpson’s asset sale with Sierra Pacific Industries closes one mill in Shelton and another in nearby Dayton. Simpson general counsel Betsy Stauffer said salaried and unionized workers will be given severance benefits.

The loss will be huge for Mason County, which had a 7.8 percent unemployment rate in March compared with a 5.7 percent rate statewide. Timber industry jobs pay a little more than $53,000 a year on average, according to the Employment Security Department.

Simpson is keeping its door plant, which employs 188 people in nearby McCleary, along with its rail assets and some of its waterfront holdings. Its Green Diamond Resource Co. subsidiary also holds 323,000 acres of timberland locally. But the company that once dominated city and county affairs plainly won’t be a major force.

State officials from two state agencies, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, Simpson, the Washington State Labor Council, IAM Local W-38, the Mason County Economic Development Council, the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council and others have already begun working with the state’s WorkSource jobs program on ways to support workers who face layoffs.

This is a bittersweet and historic moment for Shelton — as perhaps momentous as Renton learning that a Boeing jet-assembly plant was about to leave, despite some aerospace firms deciding to remain.

Colin Mosely, Simpson chairman, noted his company has run sawmill operations in Shelton for 100 years. “The decision to sell was extremely difficult because Shelton has always been the heart of our lumber manufacturing business, and we have enjoyed great support from the Shelton community,” Mosely said in a news release.

Simpson’s onetime empire extended from the mills that churned out lumber and plywood next to Puget Sound to the high-country logging camps at Grisdale and Govey that provided the raw materials. Most of that is already gone.

That is why this sale lands harder on Shelton than what the tough little city endured during the downsizing of the 1980s. It is also why the local economy — which is perched along miles of scenic shoreline and blessed with forests — is in need of major revamping and a new focus.

Mosely’s company, which once had top executives living in town, is basically saying a long goodbye, and the hugging part is drawing near.

Getting help to workers is a good start. Longer term, our state needs to revisit its strategy for retaining the best manufacturing jobs still available in the shrinking natural-resource economy.