Economic development in a bottle

As you read this, more than 90 newly employed workers in Kalama are launching round-the-clock operations of the world’s largest sustainable manufacturer of wine bottles.

Cameron Family Glass Packaging is gearing up for 24/7 operations to begin now or early November, and is the nation’s first new wine bottle glass plant since 1985.

“After studying the marketplace and the opportunities that existed, we realized there was a significant (national) shortage of glass,” said Jim Cameron, chief executive officer of the company. “About 20 percent of it comes from Mexico, France or Germany.”

So he and his colleagues decided to fill a niche, providing eco-friendly, American-made bottles to small wine makers.

The 175,000-square-foot facility is carbon-neutral with no toxic emissions, Cameron said. Ninety-eight percent of its energy comes from renewable sources such as hydropower and windpower.

The company began hiring in 2007 and has brought more than 90 full-time positions to Cowlitz County, with “family-wage rates and significant benefits packages,” Cameron said.

The county had an 8.4 percent unemployment rate in September, according to the Washington State Employment Securities Department.

The jobs help diversify and recession-proof Cowlitz County’s workforce, which has been dependent on natural resource-based industries such as grain and lumber, said Ted Sprague, president of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council.

“This fills in the gaps for some incredibly skilled and talented people who have been laid off through no fault of their own,” Sprague said.

Many of the employees received some training at manufacturing sites in Europe and elsewhere in North America, Sprague said.

The company partnered with WorkSource Cowlitz-Wahkiakum and Lower Columbia College to fill the factory with ready workers, developing applicant screening processes and employee training goals, hosting community job fairs and getting employees enrolled in courses such as applied technology, math and teamwork.

The college was particularly involved in workforce training, and was awarded a Job Skills Program grant of $225,000 from Washington State this year specifically to support Cameron employee development.

“We’re using (the grant) for very specific glass technology training,” said Lynelle Amundson, business and industry services manager at LCC.

The non-credit training also covers safety behavior skills, job analysis and trainer development. A little more than 60 employees have completed the courses so far.

“Whenever a company comes to the area the college, the economic development council and WorkSource are all at the table and it makes a big difference,” Amundson said. “I hear worldwide trainers compliment the quality of workers coming on board because of this process.”

Cameron Family Glass Packaging is headquartered in Washington, Pa., and has been in operation for 109 years, originally as Cameron Bottling Co. By the time it was purchased by The Coca Cola Co. in 1999, Cameron Bottling Co. was the nation’s ninth-largest Coke bottler.

After about five years of research, the company chose the Port of Kalama site for its $109 million development, partly because of the area’s manageable utility rates and the port’s track record of having reliable power system, Sprague said.

“I think we showed them the partnership and commitment this area has to business development,” Sprague said. “I think they appreciate the way the port does business.”

To accommodate the project, the port moved a cellular tower.

The Cowlitz Public Utility District also gave the project an extra boost by offering guaranteed rates to the company, which will be considered a bulk energy user, Sprague said.

The Cameron addition is expected to help the port recruit other businesses, said Mindi Lindquist, director of government affairs and marketing.

“We have a great history of recruitment, but it’s adding to the mix,” Lindquist said. “It projects to customers that we are a serious entity.”

The company came to the area with no existing clients, but sales staff spent the last two years developing relationships and closing deals with regional wine makers. Ridgefield-based Bethany Vineyards is expected to save as much as 25 cents per bottle with Cameron instead of using a California supplier.

“We’ve had great reception in Washington and Oregon, so far as far as getting orders,” said Cameron. “We’re focusing in on higher quality bottles – we’re not looking to provide volume service to the larger wineries.”

The project also had support from Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, who attended its groundbreaking in June 2007.

“She was on the ball, helping with permitting, had staff down from Olympia sit down with us and the townships and the county and really expedited the permitting process,” Cameron said of Gregoire.

“We’re excited to be community partners. We hope to be a good addition to the neighborhood,” Cameron said. “We’ve had a good working relationship with everybody so far. It’s good to be in Washington.”

Charity Thompson can be reached at cthompson@vbjusa.com.

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