Sparkling with another energy

SUN JOURNAL

Conversion: An unfinished nuclear plant in Washington state becomes an industrial park, home to diverse companies creating precious jobs.

March 06, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SATSOP, Wash. - Like a post-industrial ghost town, the half-finished nuclear power plant is frozen in time - specifically June 1, 1983, when construction on the facility, by then millions of dollars over budget, was suddenly halted and the workers sent home.

Today, two massive and never-used cooling towers loom over a 1,640-acre site that seems as uninhabited as the moon. But there is life here, the surest sign being one that announces, "Open 7:30 a.m., mocha lattes."

It's no Starbucks, more of a glorified lunch wagon, but as elsewhere here in the Northwest, where there are lattes there are often high-tech workers nearby - in this case, about 200 employees of SafeHarbor.com, a company that provides technical support for Internet Web sites.

SafeHarbor moved into a renovated building on the site about two years ago, sparking an unlikely reincarnation - failed nuclear plant turned high-tech business park. Once intended to generate nuclear power, the site is now producing something nearly as vital to this economically depressed area of southwest Washington: jobs.

The nuclear plant, on which construction was begun in 1978, was one of two that were planned for the site, each to generate 1,250 megawatts of power. But cost overruns and construction delays quickly began mounting, at the same time that demand for power proved less than expected.

By 1983, the power company building the plant had defaulted on a $2.25 billion loan - at the time, the largest municipal bond default in history.

"For years, the community had come to regard this thing on top of Fuller Hill as a symbol of failure," says Tami Garrow, director of business development for the Satsop Development Park, as the reborn power plant is called. "But now, what the community sees is jobs."

Since SafeHarbor moved in, about 10 other companies have joined it, bringing the first new jobs to an area whose fortunes long cycled and ultimately plummeted with its dominant industry - timber.

When environmental laws began curtailing many logging operations in the 1980s, and affected the paper and other wood product manufacturing plants based here, unemployment in the area approached 20 percent.

And in fact, many of those former timber and wood products employees are now here at SafeHarbor, sitting at computer terminals rather than wielding chainsaws or operating lathes.

"I worked in the last of the high-timber logging days," says Rich Miller, now a director of one of SafeHarbor's units. "It was hard, dangerous but well-paying, and I was in my 20s. I was college-educated, but you could make twice as much money logging as anything else."

But then the industry went through one of its slowdowns, and Miller was laid off in the early 1980s. He eventually became a traveling salesman - of beauty supplies - but developed an interest in personal computers and then the Internet. Living in this area, though, his interest would remain a hobby because there simply weren't any computer jobs around.

Some old school friends, got the idea to start SafeHarbor.com, and Miller signed on as one of their first employees.

The "Three Bs," as Brian Sterling, Bo Waddell and Bill Miller are called, grew up in nearby Hoquiam, went to Washington State University and eventually gravitated to top positions at various high-tech companies.

They decided to strike out on their own in 1998 with a company that would provide technical support for Web sites owned by other companies or government agencies. Since the support would be supplied over the Internet, SafeHarbor could be anywhere.

"One of our former high school teachers said to us, `Isn't there something you can do to create jobs here?'" Waddell says.

Customers who need help as they navigate the Web site of, say, the Washington State Licensing Department - the state government is one of SafeHarbor's clients - are directed to click on a page that SafeHarbor has developed.

There, they're led through possible solutions to their particular problems. If none of those works, customers can e-mail their question or telephone for help - probably unaware that the person on the other end is not a licensing department employee but a SafeHarbor worker in Satsop.

"About 70 percent of people can help themselves that way without having to call in," Sterling says. "Why tie up a well-trained, sophisticated tech worker with mundane questions?"

The Satsop Development Park welcomed the new company with open arms. The park spent $5 million to renovate a nearly 50,000-square-foot building for SafeHarbor and $6 million to build a second one for the growing company. Additionally, SafeHarbor gets state tax credits for bringing tech jobs to a rural area.

Compared with the cost of doing business in the Seattle area, where most of the state's other high-tech companies cluster, the deal was irresistible.

"The price was right," Sterling says. "And the key: plenty of free parking."

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