DARRINGTON — A cutting-edge lumber center is moving forward despite controversy involving project partner Forterra NW.
“We keep moving forward,” Mayor Dan Rankin said in an interview last month.
The city partnered with the Seattle-based nonprofit to build the 30-acre Darrington Wood Innovation Center. The goals are to introduce high-tech wood technology and bring 150 jobs in the wood industry to the former logging town.
The first phase offers a cross-laminated timber (CLT) factory, as well as a modular construction facility using CLT panels to build affordable housing. CLT is promoted as an environmentally sustainable building material.
Rankin came up with the idea after the 2014 Oso mudslide that killed 43 people. He saw the project as a chance to revitalize community. He hoped to start work in 2021, but construction has been repeatedly delayed.
“The scale of this project is so much bigger than I anticipated,” he said.
Forterra, meanwhile, came under fire this fall for a grant application it made to the US Department of Agriculture for a related project.
The USDA awarded Forterra’s Forest to Home project $20 million in September as part of $2.8 billion to improve climate resilience in agriculture and timber sectors sectors. The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, City of Darrington and Snohomish County were all listed as partners.
In late September, the Snoqualmie Tribe accused Forterra of misleading the tribe and the federal government about the claim, according to Seattle weather, who first reported on the allegations. In a Sept. 23 letter to the USDA, Snoqualmie Tribe President Robert M. of Los Angeles wrote that Forterra had never consulted with the tribe about the volume of wood products it proposed to manufacture at harvested from ancestral tribal forests.
A third-party investigation found that Forterra failed to properly obtain tribal consent for parts of the request, according to a November 2 report. The association’s board of directors has apologized to the Snoqualmie Tribe.
The tribe withdrew its support for the USDA grant.
“The Snoqualmie Tribe is proud to have stood up for what is right and will continue to hold accountable bad actors who seek to mislead tribal nations,” the president said in a press release.
Forterra later fired executive Tobias Leveyas reported by the Seattle Times.
Levey appeared to be a key player in the Darrington Woods center, signing building permit applications last December. The municipality has not yet issued these authorizations.
“We’re approaching my nine years of pioneering this idea,” Rankin said on Friday. “Forterra is not far behind. They have been partners of the city for five years. That’s a lot of history and knowledge that someone has to catch up on.
The future of the USDA grant remains uncertain.
“While receiving the grant would help in the future (from the Darrington Wood Innovation Center), it is not essential to that future,” Forterra said in a statement emailed Friday.
Inflation, supply chain issues and interest rate hikes had already delayed construction, the nonprofit added.
“In June, project construction efforts were put on hold as investors determined the need to seek operational business partners,” Forterra said in the statement. “Work is currently underway to increase cost savings.”
Meanwhile, the City of Darrington obtained permits for work on the site: land clearing, grading, drainage, paving and extending a watermain. The city logged about 30 acres of the site in August, clearing the way for the center of the woods.
In early 2021, the city secured key funding: a $6 million grant for infrastructure from the US Economic Development Administration. Rankin said the city is in the final stages of accessing the federal grant.
The timber center received another financial boost with a Allocation of $1.7 million from Legislature This year. The project also received a $1.5 million loan and $500,000 grant from the state’s Community Economic Revitalization Board, as well as a previous grant of $50,000 for a feasibility study.
The lumber mill is just part of Rankin’s vision for the 94-acre campus in North Darrington. He wants 30 more acres for wood education and innovation. The final 30 acres will be set aside for conservation, with access to the Whitehorse Trail and Whitehorse County Park, with the help of $157,000 from the Snohomish County Conservation Futures Fund.