Program seeks to boost profile of wood-products industry in SE Ohio

The wood-products business in Ohio contributes an estimated $22 billion a year to the state’s economy. While that may sound like a lot, Craig Rosenlund thinks the number could and should be higher… a lot higher.

Rosenlund works with the Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth in Nelsonville, where he is senior product associate for a program to boost the wood-products industry in a 32-county region. He has more than three decades of management and operations experience in the field, in both domestic and international markets.

Rosenlund is not the only person to think wood products in the Buckeye State have significant, untapped potential. The U.S. Small Business Administration believes the same.

The agency is putting money where its mouth is, to the tune of up to $2.5 million, for the Forest Products Innovation Cluster Initiative.

An SBA contract – awarded last fall – will support the efforts of Rosenlund and his colleagues at APEG for as long as five years. The Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University and Athens County-based Rural Action are partners in the project, with several other entities also taking part.

The plan is to bolster the region’s wood-products enterprises, such as sawmills, millwork and furniture manufacturing. This will be done “through the identification and development of supply-chain synergies,” said Rosenlund.

The initiative also will include workforce training, export assistance and business planning activities.

Currently, the industry relies heavily on “the sale and export of relatively low-value products such as logs and lumber,” said Rosenlund. The goal of the project is to expand “into more value-added and finished products” in order to create jobs and increase revenue in the region.

Business expansion mostly would benefit Ohio’s Appalachian counties, where there’s lots of room to grow. According to one estimate, the harvest in Ohio forests could be increased by about 40 percent without hurting sustainability.

Officials expect wood-products companies located in other parts of the state could gain as well.

Rosenlund said he’s reluctant to talk about possible success, noting the initiative is only a few months old and researching business opportunities is just getting underway. But when pressed, he estimates the economic impact of the wood-products industry “could be increased by 10 percent in five years, if a concerted, cohesive state and private-sector strategy were defined and implemented.”

Ohio government officials are becoming more aware of the forest-products industry and “beginning to coordinate efforts among the various state agencies to raise opportunity awareness inside and outside of Ohio,” said Rosenlund. “Some of the goals will be marketing the Ohio Wood Producers database once it comes on line, (and) marketing the sector and its products through promotional literature.”

Staff at the Voinovich School and APEG already have started working to identify new markets and technologies to extend the wood industry. In addition, they’re building a database to connect project participants with suppliers and export opportunities.

ROSENLUND HAS BEEN WORKING with Scott Bagley of Athens, who owns Light on the Land Services and Exeterra, which just opened its doors last year with an office at OU’s Innovation Center.

Light on the Land sells Ohio Hills Biochar, which Bagley describes as “a soil amendment for farming and gardening that helps soil retain nutrients and water; provides habitat for soil organisms; and sequesters carbon.”

The company also sells Back Forty Natural Cooking Charcoal that “is made from wood derived from restorative forest practices” and produced on small farms.

Exeterra makes and sells the Exeter Charcoal Retort, a device that converts wood into the charcoal and the soil amendment, which is called biochar. Bagley sells the Retort “throughout North America.”

“I’m working with Craig Rosenlund to develop supply-chain synergies by introducing the production technology to small sawmills in order to produce a value-added product from their leftovers, the sides of logs known as ‘slabwood,’” said Bagley. “I am benefiting mostly from Craig’s efforts to develop new connections who would use the (Retort) technology to make more revenue from their waste-wood material.”

As a result of Rosenlund’s mentorship, Bagley said he anticipates his companies will experience “significant growth this spring and summer.” He also said he expects big things out of the Forest Products Innovation Cluster Initiative.

“We have a vast forest resource that could be put to higher use if we offered lower-impact harvest options, so that is one of the ideas with the project,” said Bagley. “We can put hundreds of local people to work both in the woods and in the value-added industries.”

Appalachian Partnership for Economic Growth President and CEO John Molinaro expressed optimism about the initiative, which uses public-private partnerships to drive economic development.

Molinaro said research tracking other clusters indicates that participating businesses grow up to four times faster than those that don’t.

The target area for the wood products cluster is nearly the same as that most hurt by changes in the coal economy, such as closure of power plants, mines and other power generators. According to the SBA, the wood-products industry requires similar workforce skills as coal, and the industry is one of the state’s top five manufacturing sectors projected for employment growth through 2020.

From The Athens News  |  March 6, 2016