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Minnesota looking to attract 'mass timber' producers as alternative to steel for building construction

Red pine logs are shown in this 2006 file photo. Forum News Service

DULUTH — A burgeoning industry based on a relatively new type of material may be coming to Minnesota.

Known as mass timber, the material is an alternative to steel in building construction. While dozens of buildings constructed with the product are dotted around the country, the majority stand in the Pacific Northwest.

"This type of building product is new to the U.S.," said Brian Brashaw, a program manager with the U.S. Forest Service. "It's geared at taller buildings; it's building more along the lines of four, five and six stories. That product is seeing a lot of growth in the United States."

Now, groups and governmental agencies are working on a plan to bring that industry to the Midwest. But before a production facility can set up shop in Minnesota, officials need to know if the right kind of raw materials can be produced in the region.

"This is a feasibility study where we're taking a closer look at if the Midwest has the lumber production capacity and softwood lumber supply chain in place," wrote Kristen Bergstrand, of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in an email.

A survey is being sent to 11 sawmills that will help gauge if the state can sustain a mass timber industry. APEX, the local business and economic development organization which is sending out the survey, wants to learn the grade and board footage that mills have produced for trees such as red pine, jack pine, spruce and balsam — all considered viable materials for mass timber.

"When I was at mass timber (conference) and we were talking to these production facilities owners, they said, 'Don't even talk to me until you know if you have the production capacity in Minnesota or your region,' " said Tamara Lowney, a consultant with APEX.

Lowney has been spearheading the effort to see if an industry like mass timber could thrive in Minnesota. Based on the environmental perks that mass timber brings as well as how lumber producers could benefit economically, Lowney said it's worth pursuing.

"It's meant to diversify the sawmill industry and then add secondary manufacturing," said Lowney. "We have declining wood market-use in Minnesota, so it's not to say this will replace those, but if we can show Minnesota has an opportunity to support this type of manufacturer, then perhaps we can bring in a secondary manufacturer."

Maine conducted a similar study in the summer of 2017 to combat their own declining paper market. After seeing positive results, they have announced plans to build a facility in the state. It's not just the growth of the industry that pleases Lowney.

"Talking about the production taking place on the west coast and the species they have, it's not apples to apples in Minnesota," said Lowney. "To see some of the work done in Maine, it was very encouraging because they have a very similar mix to what we have."

Minnesota already has a textbook example of an all-wood building: The T3 office building, a seven-story high-rise in Minneapolis. Soon, it won't be the only one. Cities such as Milwaukee and Des Moines have both announced plans to build their own wooden high-rises.

Despite mass timber's growing popularity, it's still new. There are only two primary producers located in Oregon and Montana that manufacture mass timber materials. That means it's still a pricey endeavor to chase. In a recent article originally reported by the Willamette Week of Portland, Ore., plans for a proposed 12-story wooden high-rise fell through due the heavy $29 million price tag.

But Lowney said that's the nature of a new industry and the benefits offset those costs.

"It's very fast going up so you don't have a lot of the time constraints of normal building," said Lowney. "Because most of the manufacturing takes place in a building or factory somewhere, that takes a lot of the time off the site."

And that's not all. The mass timber is lighter than steel. It's fire resistant. It sequesters carbon out of the air. It also adorns an aesthetic that will attract young talent.

The survey will also answer other questions that will give APEX a better idea of what mass timber would do to the region.

"What is the real economic impact? That's a piece of the study as well," said Lowney. "What would the impact be for our region? How many jobs would that create? What's the financial impact? That'll be answered in the study."

But before any midwestern lumber can be converted, they need to know if Minnesota has the production capacity. Lowney said, without that knowledge they can't move forward.

"It is a little bit wait-and-see. From my perspective, the positive momentum comes from the fact that there's been so much support and so much willingness to go out and do the work to ensure we have real information."