Plan aimed at adding mill jobs

The sound of saws echoed through the cavernous Mill Services buildings as workers fed white pine boa
Mill Services employee Tom Marino, center, places pieces of cut wood into the feeder to be finger jointed then glued at the factory in Cobleskill Tuesday.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Mill Services employee Tom Marino, center, places pieces of cut wood into the feeder to be finger jointed then glued at the factory in Cobleskill Tuesday.

The sound of saws echoed through the cavernous Mill Services buildings as workers fed white pine boards into a laser-scanning machine that checked for defects at the rate of 750 feet per minute.

The $500,000 Lux combiscan system is among nearly $1 million in new equipment and repairs to the aging wood molding and trim factory since it was purchased last March by New Hampshire-based Eastern Forest Products, said General Manager Jim Bender.

Employment has also increased from about 40 last spring to about 60 workers now, he said.

Before Eastern Forest Products bought the company from an elderly Vermont owner, the factory was in danger of closing, according to Bender.

To assist, the state Empire Development Corp. on Jan. 17 approved a $180,000 grant to Eastern Forest Jointing/EFJ Inc., which runs the company under the continuing Mill Services name.

A public hearing on the $4,588,900 total makeover plan is set for 1 p.m. on Feb. 7 at Cobleskill Village Hall.

Copies of the agreement and plan, which require the company to add 15 jobs to the 52 that were in existence when the deal closed last March, may be inspected at the village clerk’s office.

Schoharie County’s Planning and Development Agency and local Empire Zone officials are also seeking state approval to designate it a Regionally Significant Project that could qualify for additional tax and utility incentives under the Empire Zone program.

That application, filed about a year ago, is still awaiting a decision, according to upstate Empire State Development spokeswoman Stefanie Zankowicz.

To receive the $180,000 grant, the company must have at least 67 full-time employees by January 2011.

“We have already passed muster for the first 50 percent,” said Jamie Place, EFJ vice president. “In order to get the rest of the grant,” Place said, “we have to be at 67 jobs.” He said the company expects to reach that goal well before the 2011 deadline.

According to the plan, EFJ’s equity in the project totals about $2.4 million, plus about $1.9 million in bank financing and the $180,000 state grant.

The payback period for New York state to recover the grant value is estimated at one year. The initial cost to all government entities for each direct job produced is $3,469, according to the EFJ documents.

The complex of beige buildings with a tall smokestack and blue silo on MacArthur Avenue, just east of the State University of New York at Cobleskill, has a long history under several names.

There’s been a factory or mill of some sort there since the late 19th century.

“But you say Mill Services, and people still say, ‘Where’s that?’ ” Bender said.

Many longtime residents remember when windows and doors were manufactured there in the 1970s under the former Burton Industries, he said.

At the time, it was the largest manufacturing employer in the county, with about 300 workers, according to Bender.

In 1981, that work continued under Karpin Systems Inc., as KSI Building Products. The KSI initials are still visible on some buildings.

In 1993, the factory became Mill Services Inc. after it was bought by Carl Dennis of Brattleboro, Vt.

Dennis ended window and door manufacturing by 1997 to concentrate on making specialized wood moldings and trim for the building industry.

Bender, a Cobleskill native, has lived through a lot of those changes since he started working there 31 years ago spraying paint on products.

About a third of the current work force has also been at the plant for around 30 years, he said.

As Bender recounted history in a small office shared with two formerly stray cats, Tomcat and Kitty, he was helped by the detailed memories of executive assistant Vickie McDonald, who’s worked there since 1972.

After worries that the company might be lost when Dennis was ailing at the age of 82, Bender said, the infusion of cash and upgraded equipment from Eastern Forest Products points to a potential 100 employees over three shifts within a few years.

“They were our biggest customer,” Bender said of the new owners.

Already, the EFJ Inc./Mill Services plant is the largest U.S. manufacturer of Eastern white pine trim boards that are assembled with the finger-jointing process, according to Place.

Making the premium boards and moldings that end up in building supply stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s involves cutting apart raw boards to remove defects like knotholes and sap spots. The good pieces are then joined with a grooved joint, glued, polished and patched to produce a smooth, paintable surface, Bender explained.

As much of the wood as possible is used for various products, with shavings from scrap wood then sold for animal bedding to stores such as Agway.

“The object is to save as much of the wood as possible,” Bender said, as he proudly showed off the new high-speed scanner. The machine automatically tells saw blades where to cut the boards before pieces are divided up and sent speeding down a conveyor to jointing crews.

“This is as good as it gets,” he said of the new machine.

Categories: Schenectady County

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