Clear road ahead for SEL

Lewiston expansion will bring 100 new jobs; Ed Schweitzer gets standing ovation

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lewiston’s interim city manager promised the founder of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman he would encounter no challenges as his company pursues a $10 million to $12 million expansion in Lewiston.

An overflow crowd of about 200 clapped after Dan Marsh made the pledge Monday at an open house at the Red Lion Hotel in Lewiston. Edmund O. Schweitzer III, who received a standing ovation, was in Lewiston to answer questions about his plans to construct a 106,000-square-foot building for manufacturing that would employ about 100 near Village Centre Cinemas in about one year.

The property in the Port of Lewiston’s Business and Technology Park is already zoned for the project of the company that makes high-tech equipment for electrical utilities and power intensive industries. But a deal for SEL to acquire the 25 acres for $831,451 is subject to a vote of the port’s commission today.

Once that decision is made, SEL will decide how it will use its new manufacturing space, which will be about half the size of SEL’s production in Pullman, Schweitzer said. “We’re growing. Orders are strong. Customers are happy. We’re inventing new stuff every day.”

The Lewiston project is one element of a three-part plan that includes construction of a three-story 70,000-square-foot building on SEL’s Pullman campus, where SEL anticipates adding 150 people to a staff of about 1,500 this year. It will house engineers conducting research and development as well as six oversized classrooms where SEL employees will help customers test equipment.

At the same time, SEL is constructing 68,500 square feet of manufacturing space in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, where SEL already has a 100,000-square-foot factory that employs a staff of 400, projected to grow to 500 in the next year. The Mexico site makes small control houses containing digital protective relays produced in Pullman that are connected to computerized control panels.

Lewiston was SEL’s choice for its expansion of manufacturing in the United States because it will shorten the 90-minute commute of at least some of the 141 SEL employees who reside in Lewiston, Clarkston, Asotin or Lapwai, Schweitzer said.

“It’s an understatement to say I’m excited,” said Jackie Peer, a research and development manager for time and communications systems at SEL, who has worked at the company for 15 years. “I’m really proud to bring (SEL) to my community,” said Peer who lives in Asotin.

Peer was among about 20 SEL employees who opened the presentation by introducing themselves, and in many instances, telling about the ties they have with the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

Aside from SEL employees who stand to work closer to home, some of those most affected by SEL’s plans are those who live just south of the proposed Lewiston SEL site.

At least three had questions about how the building would be situated. The main access to the complex will be off Juniper Drive north of Interventional Pain Consultants. SEL plans to have an 80-foot buffer along the southern side of its land, which is closest to residential neighbors.

“Now that I understand where it’s going to be I think it’s really cool,” said Teresa Burcham, who has lived adjacent to the Port’s Business and Technology Park for seven years.

SEL will make Lewiston’s already robust manufacturing base even more diverse, said Kathryn Tacke, regional economist with the Idaho Department of Labor in Lewiston.

The jobs are a good match with the skills of would-be employees in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, where there’s a large proportion of high school graduates with a year or two of technical training, said Tacke, who was contacted before the open house by the Tribune. “Schweitzer offers good pay and benefits. There’s good career ladders that are available with it.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.