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As OMIC takes shape, state sinks $14 million into improvements at new advanced manufacturing site

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Mike Myers, OIT professor and OMIC executive, shows off a warehouse space that will eventually house industrial machines and apprentice workers. The current OMIC building in Scappoose is filled with office spaces slated to be converted.Typically, the vision for how and where a city will develop over the next two decades is determined by lengthy planning processes and public hearings.

In Scappoose, the city's future will likely be shaped by the world's largest aerospace company.

The Boeing Company chose Scappoose — a quiet, quaint city with a population of roughly 7,000 — as the site for its next advanced manufacturing research and development site.

The news was announced in March 2016, then came the partnerships with higher education — Portland Community College, Oregon Institute of Technology, Portland State University and Oregon State University.

In fall of that same year, when Oregon Tech bought a nearly-vacant building of office suites amid a rugged gravel pit in Scappoose, it marked the start of the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center and the beginning of the end of the city's reputation as a bedroom community.

The project was initially given $7.5 million in state funding. Through a series of legislative bills utilizing leftover funds from various state programs, including Oregon Lottery dollars, an additional $14 million in state funds has since been allocated to OMIC.

Much of the project's initial funding came at the behest of influential Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, whose district includes Columbia County. Johnson has maintained a hands-on role in OMIC.

She points out the current OMIC building on a map of Scappoose — it looks tiny in comparison, but as Johnson moves her finger across a swatch of undeveloped land, it becomes clear the building is just the beginning.

"The OMIC R and D is going to be the anchor for the innovation district," Johnson explains. She lays out a vision that includes nearby housing, new restaurants and shopping, and says infrastructure improvements can be expected.

Companies like Daimler Trucks North America, Vigor, Silver Eagle Manufacturing and ATI Metals, to name a few, have all signed on with paid partnership agreements to take part in the region's first collaborative research and development venture that will ultimately yield the latest and most streamlined manufacturing methods and technology available.

More partnerships are forthcoming.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Bill Gerry, left, and Sen. Betsy Johnson view a map of Scappoose, showing the planned growth footprint of OMIC. What is currently one building will eventually grow to be a district with industry offices, Johnson says.

"We're bringing seven core industry partners together to work on the real problems the industry is having," says Bill Gerry, a program manager with Boeing who is helping oversee the development of OMIC. "I don't think people really understand what this means for the area and what this could be."

Gerry says more companies are flocking to OMIC, with some bound to actually build new offices in Scappoose.

"We've brought on two new international members into OMIC," Gerry says, giving a rundown of how rapidly things have moved since the OMIC building was purchased. "I've got people lined up to talk to about additional members joining and it's only gonna continue."

He pulls up a flowchart, showing OMIC as a key component in a four-part system of Boeing operations, including a manufacturing plant in Gresham that currently employs close to 1,600 people.

Gerry outlines an applied research model that is difficult for most outside his industry to grasp.

OMIC, like its predecessor — the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, England — will largely be a place where metals manufacturers and other product producers can come together and brainstorm what challenges the industry is facing, and develop ways to produce products faster, with less resources and less cost. Gerry and his colleagues refer to it as "technology roadmapping" or "brainstorming."

It's a collaborative approach to solving the manufacturing world's problems and ultimately, finding better ways to make products.

"Across the board—airplanes, trucks, trailers—everybody needs to improve their processes, everybody needs to improve their bottom line by making things for less, and everyone needs to do it greener," Gerry says. By improving the process, companies can manufacture their parts for less, leading to higher demand. Will automation replace some human jobs? Sure, Gerry says, but if a company can make a part cheaper, they can increase demand, hire more people, and ideally, move away from low-cost labor markets.

"There's a new generation of young people who have hope," Gerry says of what an advanced manufacturing and research site means for students entering college.

And for those residents who never attended college, or are heading back to further their career, there are opportunities for them, too.

"Many OIT graduates are in their early 30s, and some are in their 40s," Mike Myers, an associate professor in manufacturing and mechanical engineering and technology at OIT, says. He says students interested in a field directly applicable to OMIC can either start at a community college and transfer, or begin their education through one of OMIC's educational partners, and seek apprenticeships as they advance toward a degree.

PCC is rolling out plans for a training center in Scappoose in conjunction with OMIC, providing an initial pathway for workforce training and the first educational steps toward a career in advanced manufacturing.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - The OMIC building in Scappoose sits near a gravel pit, but recently allocated state funding will help provide paved parking and improved roads into the site. Officials working at OMIC say the first building is likely the first of many that will be part of the innovation district over the next 20 years.While some have written off manufacturing as a bygone industry in America, the need for skilled workers continues to grow.

Oregon alone puts out an estimated $50 billion in annual manufacturing output, according to the Oregon Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and nearly 30,000 jobs will need to be filled by 2022, to address retirements and industry growth.

"The idea is to create wealth," Gerry says. "Jobs for young people, jobs for people who are tired of driving back and forth to Portland, greener processes, better processes."

The OMIC leader and Boeing executive's description may seem grandiose, but it's that same fervor and optimistic vision that's led his company to partner with higher education and transform a former coking and metallurgy site in Sheffield that was bombed out during World War II, into

England's most successful and innovative industrial district.

Visions of a buzzing future may be hard to envision in OMIC's present state. As of now, the building that houses OMIC is just that- a single building, vacant but for Gerry and Myers, and the St. Helens-based trucking company that still uses the bottom floor warehouse space for truck repair.

That's about to change.

Walls are soon to be knocked out, the gravel parking lot that encapsulates the site will eventually be paved, roads into the building will be improved, and a multi-million dollar, state-of-the-art milling and turning machine from Austria is slated to be trucked in sometime in early 2018.

As OMIC quietly takes shape, industry officials say Columbia County, much like the machines from Boeing, is poised for takeoff.

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