Emissions, Nuclear, Reactors

Concrete skeletons of defunct nuclear plant may become high-tech office park

By MARCELENE EDWARDS

TACOMA, Wash., Oct. 1, 2000 (The News Tribune)—The view out the window of Chris Slaughter’s office at SafeHarbor.com is blocked by a water cooling tower nearly 500 feet high. And that’s the way he likes it.

That relic of a failed pair of nuclear power plants provides the basis for Slaughter and other employees at the Satsop Development Park to brag about being in one of the most unusual working environments in the country.

“It was a little surreal driving up here the first day,” said Slaughter, who manages customer accounts at SafeHarbor. “But it’s a nice built-in icon. You can’t do much better than that.”

The Satsop nuclear plant site is being turned into a high-tech business park in an effort to spur the economy of timber-dependent Grays Harbor County. But the water cooling towers, which can be seen from Highway 12, will always remain at the site as a sign of the plant’s original intent.

The Grays Harbor Public Development Authority plans to bring more than 7,000 jobs to the area in the next decade, said Tami Garrow, director of business development.

High-tech companies such as online support provider SafeHarbor.com, Internet service provider Techline.com and e-commerce support company Cypress Resources have moved to the area because of its state-of-the-art, high-speed Internet network and low rents. Boise Cascade Corp. has signed a letter of intent to open a siding manufacturing plant that would bring 120 jobs.

Garrow plans to lure businesses by emphasizing the county’s quality of life, lack of traffic jams and bargain real estate. House prices there average $91,400, compared to Pierce County’s average of $169,859 in August.

But the park is a couple hours from both Seattle and Portland, far out of the way for most businesses. Surrounding communities are small and don’t provide the diversity of entertainment options that workers have in urban areas.

Still, park supporters argue that location is becoming less important in the new Internet economy, especially with the business park’s high-speed Internet access.

“It’s a little strange. It’s hard to explain to people what (the park) is,” said Scott Sipe, network planner for Internet provider Techline.com. “It’s an excellent work environment.”

Sipe said the rural setting is a quiet, peaceful environment with lots of trees and plants.

When construction on the nuke plants was halted in the mid-1980s, dozens of buildings had been completed. Many of them can be converted to office use. SafeHarbor.com was the first business to move into the park, a year ago.

“It’s the most unique business park in the world,” said Bo Wandell, president and co-founder of SafeHarbor.

SafeHarbor’s 200 employees work several hundred feet from where the plant’s nuclear reactors would have generated electricity.

Cooling towers flanking the site provide lunchtime entertainment. Employees at the young tech company started a tower-climbing club last spring. Members who scaled more than 400 steps up the outside of the tower could look – on a clear day — all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The climb takes about a half hour. The activity was halted during the summer because of fears of liability should someone fall, Garrow said. Wandell had been to the top twice.

SafeHarbor’s founders all grew up in Grays Harbor County and saw in the Satsop Development Park an opportunity to bring new business and jobs to their community.

“We knew if we could produce jobs, we could turn around the economy,” Wandell said.

Grays Harbor County has reported double-digit unemployment for much of the last two decades. As of August, it had declined somewhat to 8.8 percent.

Grays Harbor reached its peak economically in 1926 when it was the busiest port in the state. Since then the population has remained static, at about 67,000, said Dick Conway, a local economist who publishes The Puget Sound Economic Forecaster.

Between 1980 and 1997, Washington added nearly 1 million jobs. Grays Harbor County lost 2,400.

“If (the development park) generated 2,000 jobs (on site) over five years, that would (average) 400 jobs a year on site and a total 800 jobs a year in the county,” Conway said.

When SafeHarbor opened, the company’s office and its three founders were crammed into austere quarters in warehouses that were used to store pieces of the nuclear reactor during construction. As the pioneer company at the site, SafeHarbor got a great deal, Garrow said — about 25 cents per square foot for the office space. That since has increased to about $1.65 a square foot, still much cheaper than the $22 per square foot companies typically pay in Tacoma.

As SafeHarbor expanded, it moved into bigger space, eventually taking over the original construction offices near the middle of the site. Now the company occupies a two-story, 44,000-square-foot building complete with plush conference rooms, executive offices and rows of cubicles. The development authority is finishing a second building for SafeHarbor and a third one is in discussion.

SafeHarbor has about 200 employees now and company officials project 400 more jobs will be created by the end of next year. That means hiring about 25 workers a month.

Much to the surprise of company executives, job applicants are attracted to both the former nuclear plant and the company.

“We thought it was going to be a challenge to attract technology folks,” Cummings said. “But in fact, we get hundreds and hundreds of resumes because people are looking for an alternative (to Seattle).”

About 60 percent of the company’s workers live in Grays Harbor County.

Companies moving into the Satsop Development Park can draw workers from Olympia and Aberdeen, which are both about 30 minutes away. Some workers make the hour drive from Tacoma each day.

The latest company to announce intent to move in is Boise Cascade, which plans to take over a string of warehouses next year, said company spokesman Mike Moser.

The wood products company has developed a new product that converts waste wood and plastic bound for the landfill into siding for houses.

Boise Cascade was attracted to the low rent at the site and its unique infrastructure. Because it was designed to be a self-contained nuclear power plant, the project was constructed with its own, water, electrical, telecommunications and road systems.

But SafeHarbor has voiced concerns that fumes and noise will be generated by the Boise Cascade plant, which would be about 400 feet from SafeHarbor. That has put those plans in question. The two companies and the Grays Harbor development group met with Gov. Gary Locke’s office to negotiate a solution. Garrow said the most likely resolution will be that the next SafeHarbor building will be built on the other side of the park, and the company will slowly relocate.

The Grays Harbor Public Development Authority will start selling the site to businesses and site selectors nationwide in the coming months.

“We are nearly ready to market the site to the world,” said Steve Romjue, president and chief executive officer of the development agency.

The biggest piece of the development is the 300,000-square-foot turbine building, which is where steam generated by nuclear energy would have been converted to electricity. Much of the building and the attached nuclear reactor building were built with four- to six-inch-thick walls, perfect for a semiconductor manufacturer or a company that has lots of computer servers that need to be protected. The rooms are earthquake-proof and the structure can withstand storms, tornados and other natural disasters.

Garrow said she plans to market parts of the site to companies that make computer chips and other electronic devices. Semiconductor and electronics manufacturers need buildings that aren’t affected by weather and natural disasters that can damage products.

“We think we’ve got a great place in the bag, but nobody knows about us,” Garrow said. “The quality of life is unsurpassed and the quality of your work environment is incredible.”

Techline.com executives liked the extra-thick walls that make the rooms lined with servers sound-proof.

“It’s a good place to put things,” Techline’s Sipe said.

Now, Garrow and her team have to sell that advantage to companies and site selectors to bring more jobs and revenue to the site.

The development authority is a public/private entity that gets no tax money. Instead, it must raise money through rent, fees and the sale of the pieces of the nuclear plant. That makes finishing the project a bit of a challenge, Garrow said. The group has spent much of its $15 million seed money on a telecommunications network and on building offices for SafeHarbor. The whole project is estimated to cost about $60 million. Garrow said she plans to apply for some redevelopment grants and other seed money to move onto some other projects in the site.

But no one at the development authority is uneasy about whether they can accomplish this big task.

“I bet before we are done, we will create just as many jobs as the nuclear plant would create and they are just as high-paying,” Garrow said.

© 2000 The News Tribune Tacoma, WA via Bell&Howell Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.