Oct 7, 2007

Coeur d'Alene tribal leaders invest in manufacturing

The other day I speculated on ways for Billings MT to expand its economy. Then when the Wilhelm odyssey passed through Coeur D’Alene, ID, I found a story in that city’s local paper about a community that has the right idea.

Last year the Coeur d'Alene Tribe acquired Berg Integrated Systems, a manufacturing company that has earned itself a contract to produce collapsible fuel bladders that can hold up to 210,000 gallons of diesel or aircraft fuel. I never heard of fuel bladders and have no idea what they look like, but apparently they require some pretty high skill levels and technology to make. John Dickson, Berg’s general manager, told the Post Falls Press, "BIS has developed manufacturing technologies for the production of fuel bladders that exist nowhere else in the world." The tribe looks to be able to bring about $400 million to its local membership over the next five years.

Tribal leaders are fully aware that gaming revenues are not real wealth and do not provide the kind of employment that help their members best. Coeur d'Alene Tribe Chairman Chief Allan told the Post Falls Press, “It’s another opportunity for our people to control their own destiny. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe set out with a vision to make a real difference in the lives of our membership and the people of Northern Idaho.” Berg Integrated Systems has about 30 employees, but expects to open about 40 more jobs, paying $15 an hour.

In a February 13, 2007 article, Jack McNeel of “Indian Country Today” reported on the opening of the new Berg plant on the reservation. He said the tribe’s goal was to give workers high-end steel fabrication, welding, blueprint reading and practical application of basic math skills that would last a lifetime. North Idaho College is working with the tribe to train employees.

The main product produced at Berg is a remote-site, integrated expandable shelter platform. It’s a steel structure, 8 feet by 20 feet for easy transportation. The walls expand to 20 feet by 24 feet when positioned on the site. Units from Berg are used as mobile office space by the Oregon National Guard. Offices can include an air conditioning and window package, full lighting, and flooring. ESP systems can be used for medical facilities, water treatment units, executive offices, laboratory facilities, kitchen/dining facilities or security units, all ideal for deployment in emergencies.

Richard Williams, a tribal member employed by BIS, told McNeel, ''It's meant a lot to me, both job- and security-wise.'' Compared to his job at the Coeur d'Alene Casino, Williams said, ''There are more opportunities for promotions here. I started as a laborer and they trained me to weld. I've never welded before except in high school. They recognized my hard work and willingness to stay late, and now are talking about moving me up again. I really like it here because it has room for expansion if you're willing to work.''

The company’s website says it is committed to lean management, and the president and lean manager appear from their published profiles to have just few years of experience. Darren Stuck, the general manager, has some depth of lean experience. He was introduced to lean in 1999, and has studied and practiced it with a passion since then. He co-founded and served as chair of the Inland Northwest Lean Manufacturing Consortium.

I give the leaders of the Coeur d’Alene tribe high marks for believing that high-tech manufacturing can be successful in unexpected places. Community resources like State job development offices and community colleges can be valuable partners in economic development so people can have good jobs without leaving family and friends to hunt for jobs in other places.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where you came by the theory that gaming revenues are not "real weatlth," but that is patently false. Wealth is wealth, and casinos generate it the same as any other business. There are many legitimate reasons you may not care for casinos, but to say they do not generate wealth is absurd. Compare the Isabella Indian Reservation in Central Michigan today to what it was 30 years ago for a good example.

Karen Wilhelm said...

The "wealth" comment is traditional economic theory - real wealth is produced only if you make it, mine it, or grow it. It's a finicky distinction from income or revenue, which gaming certainly produces. So someone with a lot of money can be called "wealthy." Casinos are clearly a service with a market willing to pay for it.

I didn't mean to take any moral stance on casinos. Like I said, it's a service. Or like Branson or Disney, it's a created product called entertainment.

I think the real difference comes with retail. Profit from a fast food shop or discount store goes out of the community, except for what local people are paid. On the other hand, if the retail company sells something grown or created in the community, the profits are retained.

All in all, it's obvious that I'm biased toward manufacturing as a higher-value form of community development -- unless of course there's no market for the manufactured product and it just consumes dollars without turning them into wages or profits.

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