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Coalition forms to build research facility
by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
A coalition of partners is forming to build a new composites research and development park adjacent to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Battelle Marine Sciences Lab in Sequim.
It’s all part of a larger effort, tagged the “Olympic Composites Corridor,” that would create a peninsula-wide world-class composites center — a “composites eco-system” that would include everything from research to education to manufacturing. Composites, which are created from various combinations of alloys, plastics and ceramics, are growing in importance in manufacturing, particularly in the aerospace and automotive industries, because they provide a tough, lightweight alternative to steel, aluminum and other metals.
Officials from the lab and from the Port of Port Angeles (POPA) described the project to Sequim officials during a joint POPA-Sequim City Council meeting held at John Wayne Marina on Monday, June 25.
The projected budget for the “composites manufacturing demonstration facility” tops $100 million.
The lead partner in the effort, the National Center of Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS), hopes to apply for a $50 million grant this summer. To qualify, an applicant must provide at least $50 million in matching cash, in-kind donations or other investments.
The City of Sequim anticipates its part in the effort will include bringing water and sewer services to the facility. Work on widening and improving West Sequim Bay Road also is anticipated.
Michael Fancher, a senior program manager with NMCS, said if the program is successful the area would become “a world leader” in the composites industry. He’s bullish on the industry, saying it promises huge growth in upcoming decades.
Fancher also pointed to the area’s existing advantages, including the peninsula’s natural beauty. He anticipates it would be a popular move for the composites research and development firms they hope will set up shop at the facility.
He noted that while there is a similar facility in the United Kingdom, this would be the first in the U.S. “It would serve as a national model,” Fancher said.
Battelle pitches in
Dr. Charles Brandt, director of the Sequim-based Marine Sciences Laboratory, said the lab utilizes just seven acres, leaving 140 acres of prime space for other uses. Battelle owns the land, but Brandt said if the Port of Port Angeles builds the research facilities the land would be transferred to the Port “for the duration.”
He noted that Battelle’s larger mission as a nonprofit includes supporting economic development in the communities where its facilities are located. Supporting the research facility project “was an easy decision,” he said.
“We intend to make it happen.”
Brandt said he has been frustrated to see that the results of the research and development the lab conducts consistently “goes somewhere else” — often overseas. Creating a composites corridor — with manufacturing facilities — is one solution. “This is where the country needs to go,” he said.
He noted the research facility would have immediate access to the staff of 100 at the Sequim lab, and to the additional 4,000 staffers at the Richland headquarters of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
Colleen McAleer, who is spearheading the effort on behalf of the Port of Port Angeles, said the Sequim facility would constitute one portion of a much larger enterprise that has been tagged the “Olympic Composites Corridor,” a gathering of area resources to create an infrastructure for composites research and manufacturing.
She noted that Peninsula College has a composite structures program in place and that the Port now operates its own Composites Manufacturing Center (CMC).
Other partners in the effort include the Clallam County Economic Development Council and a number of private firms, including Profile Composites, Angeles Composite Technologies, Westport Shipyards and Platypus Marine.
Sequim Councilor Bill Huizinga asked for details on the city’s role. John Calhoun, president of the Port of Port Angeles, told Huizinga the discussion had just begun. “We’re going to continue our conversations” with the city, he said.
McAleer noted that the project almost certainly will require a bond issue to build the first planned facility on the Battelle property, a 20,000-square-foot shell that will house researchers.
“Whatever the city can do makes it much easier,” she said. “If the cost is high it becomes less feasible to do it.”
Brandt added that a winning application package would provide proof that the expertise is in place to convert the $50 million into ongoing manufacturing jobs.
He added that it isn’t enough just to provide the matching funds — the many partners will have to exhibit a common sense of purpose and commitment.
City Manager Steve Burkett said the city has long planned to annex the Battelle facility, calling it one of the city’s top goals.
Public Works Director Paul Haines said the city has a $37.8 million plan for developing “eastern Sequim,” but added that if Battelle has a “quick need for utilities we can do that.”
Huizinga added, “I think the city has to be part of it.”
Calhoun agreed, saying, “This is one of the biggest opportunities I’ve ever seen.”
Mayor Ken Hays called it an “exciting idea,” saying he has long been a promoter of composites as a key to economic growth.
He asked McAleer to provide “as soon as possible” details on what is expected of the city. He asked for flexibility, saying he would like to know “both minimally and optimally,” what the city could bring to the table.
None of the partners believes the project will be easy to build. Brandt said, “The state has to step up.”
McAleer added that she expects a great deal of competition for the grant, which means every partner has to come through.
“Each has their own challenges,” Calhoun said.