DARRINGTON — A cutting-edge timber center is moving ahead despite a controversy involving project partner Forterra NW.
“We’re still moving forward,” Mayor Dan Rankin said in an interview last month.
The town has partnered with the Seattle-based nonprofit to build the 30-acre Darrington Wood Innovation Center. The goals are to showcase high-tech wood technology and bring 150 timber industry jobs to the former logging town.
Phase one proposes a cross-laminated timber (CLT) plant, plus a modular construction facility using CLT panels to build affordable housing. CLT is touted as an environmentally sustainable building material.
Rankin came up with the idea after the 2014 Oso mudslide that killed 43. He saw the project as a chance to revitalize the community. He hoped to break ground in 2021, but construction has been delayed several times.
“The magnitude of this project is so much bigger than I’ve anticipated,” he said.
Forterra, meanwhile, was criticized this fall for a grant application it made to the U.S. 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 resiliency in the agricultural and timber sectors. The Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, the town of Darrington and Snohomish County were all listed as partners.
In late September, the Snoqualmie Tribe accused Forterra of misleading the tribe and federal government about the application, according to The Seattle Times, which first reported on the allegations. In a Sept. 23 letter to the USDA, Snoqualmie Tribal Chairman Robert M. de los Angeles wrote Forterra never consulted the tribe on the volume of timber products it proposed to manufacture from harvests of tribal ancestral forests.
A third-party investigation found Forterra did not properly obtain the tribe’s consent for parts of the application, according to a Nov. 2 report. The nonprofit’s board has apologized to the Snoqualmie Tribe.
The tribe has withdrawn support for the USDA grant.
“The Snoqualmie Tribe is proud to have stood up for what’s right and will continue to hold accountable bad actors who seek to deceive Tribal Nations,” the chairman said in a news release.
Forterra subsequently fired executive Tobias Levey, as The Seattle Times reported.
Levey appeared to be a key player in the Darrington timber center, signing off on building permit applications last December. The town has not yet issued those permits.
“We are coming up on my nine-year mark of launching this idea,” Rankin said Friday. “Forterra is not far behind that. They’ve been a partner with the town going on five years. That’s a lot of history and knowledge someone has to get caught up on.”
The future of the USDA grant remains up in the air.
“While receiving the grant would assist with the future of (the Darrington Wood Innovation Center), it is not essential to that future,” Forterra said in an emailed statement Friday.
Inflation, supply chain issues and interest rate hikes had already delayed construction, the nonprofit added.
“In June, construction efforts for the project were paused as investors determined the need to seek operational business partners,” Forterra said in the statement. “Work is currently being done to increase cost savings.”
Meanwhile, the town of Darrington has secured permits for site work: clearing, grading, drainage, paving and a water main extension. The town logged about 30 acres of the site in August, clearing the way for the timber center.
In early 2021, the town secured a key funding piece: a $6 million grant for infrastructure from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. Rankin said the town is in the final stages to access the federal grant.
The timber center got another funding boost with a $1.7 million allocation from the 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 an earlier $50,000 grant for a feasibility study.
The timber manufacturing plant is just one part of Rankin’s vision for the 94-acre campus in north Darrington. He wants another 30 acres for wood education and innovation. The final 30 acres will be preserved for conservation, with access to the Whitehorse Trail and Whitehorse County Park, with the help of $157,000 in Conservation Futures funds from Snohomish County.