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Federal official sees mass timber future as ‘very promising’

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By PETER WONG

Oregon Capital Bureau

A Biden administration official says Oregon’s mass-timber project, and 20 others around the nation, will go beyond current economic needs to stimulate the nation’s emerging industries and develop a future workforce.

Alejandra Castillo, assistant secretary of commerce for economic development, spoke to participants in the Oregon Mass Timber Coalition and toured the site proposed by the Port of Portland for a production center. Mass timber is composed of layers of wood held together by glue or other means and is pressed together to form a strong building material.

Its advocates say mass timber — a version of cross-laminated timber — holds the potential for regenerating jobs in forests and manufacturing. They also say it is cheaper and less likely to add to heat-trapping greenhouse gases than other building materials, such as concrete and steel.

“I am excited because not only is it an industry that is very promising, it is the triangulation of the environment, workforce development and housing,” Castillo said at the close of a meeting with participants Wednesday at port headquarters at Portland International Airport. “This is an opportunity for America to bet on itself, not only for economic growth but global competitiveness.”

Coalition members include three state agencies — Business Development, Forestry, and Land Conservation and Development — and the University of Oregon and Oregon State University. Also represented were private and nonprofit sectors.

Among the attendees were Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. Wyden leads the Finance Committee, which writes tax legislation.

“We are here because mass timber has massive economic potential for our state and our country,” Wyden said. Recent congressional approval of a record-setting federal investment of $370 billion in alternative energy and climate-change measures, which Wyden helped shape, can give a much-needed boost to it.

“Those tax credits can be used to produce wood that is greener” than other building materials, he said. “We are going to have a green resource.”

Merkley leads the Senate appropriations subcommittee that deals with federal forests, and sits on the subcommittee that decides Commerce Department spending.

He said mass timber unites a variety of interests — urban and rural, environmental and timber industry advocates, construction and housing — rather than divides them.

“This (national) competition has forced innovation,” he said. “It showcases this mass-timber collaboration in Oregon. We intend to push this forward and it will drive a lot of good things.”

Castillo said her agency sought to ensure that the money went to all-inclusive efforts.

“We worked to make sure the coalitions were as broad and diverse as possible, not just in terms of communities of color but also rural communities,” she said.

Biden is the third president Castillo has worked for. She was in the Office of National Drug Control Policy when Bill Clinton was in the White House in the 1990s, and in the Commerce Department under President Barack Obama, who in 2014 named her director of the Minority Business Development Agency.

Beyond recovery

The Department of Commerce awarded a grant of $41.4 million to the coalition, led by the Port of Portland, and 20 others totaling $1 billion in the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. The Economic Development Administration, which is part of the department, got a total of $3 billion under the American Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed just seven weeks after he took office in 2021. (Oregon got eight grants totaling $15.5 million under the other programs.)

Unlike much of the $1.9 trillion in the law, Castillo said this money was not aimed at immediate relief and short-term recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the sharp economic downturn that followed.

“It was designed not just to deal with the challenges of the pandemic, but to have a much longer-term perspective and catalyze growth,” she said. “When you look at it in its totality, what you see is an opportunity for the United States to go into spaces and places that may have been left behind — and to put in those capital investments so we make sure those communities can grow.”

Mass timber has emerged on its own. A 25-story building, the world’s tallest using it, has just been completed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. An eight-story, 126-unit apartment building is underway in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and is scheduled for completion next year. In Oregon, Swinerton Builders completed the five-story First Tech Federal Credit Union building in Hillsboro in 2018. The roof over the expanded main terminal at Portland International Airport — the site of the meeting — will use 3 million board feet of the material.

Ernesto Fonseca, chief executive of Hacienda Community Development Corp. in Portland, said there is a need for less expensive ways to build much needed housing. He said as soon as his organization completes a project, the waiting list for affordable housing — defined by the federal government as no more than 30% of household income — outgrows the supply.

“It’s going to change the way we do business,” Fonseca said at the panel discussion, referring to his hopes for modular housing using mass timber.

Wyden seized on a point made by Kristin Greene, deputy director of the Land Conservation and Development Department. She said those who may lose their homes in Oregon’s next wildfires, comparable to the 2020 Labor Day wildfires, should not have to wait two years for replacement housing.

Three on West Coast

The Oregon Mass Timber Coalition was one of three West Coast awardees in its category. The original competition began with 529 applicants, which the Commerce Department whittled down to 60, each receiving a $500,000 planning grant. The 21 national awardees announced Sept. 2 received grants ranging from $25 million to $65 million.

The other western grants went to California, where a project combines technology and training for farmworkers in the Central Valley — half the nation’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown there — and Alaska for a shellfish and seaweed project.

The coalition’s grant of $41.4 million is not enough for it to convert the 53-acre site at Terminal 2 at the Port of Portland into a mass-timber production center. (It had hoped for $100 million.) But Castillo said it and the other 20 awardees should be able to obtain other government grants and private capital.

“It’s going to propel the coalition to continue with this proposal,” she said.

“it’s also going to attract private-sector capital and other capital sources to come into this space and give it a big push. That’s why the Department of Commerce is excited about moving forward and creating the next generation of supply chains of the nation.”

The Oregon Legislature has approved $5 million toward the production center.

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