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Shipbuilder Vigor picks Vancouver for Army landing craft manufacturing

Former Christensen site could bring 400 jobs to Vancouver with $1 billion contract

By , Columbian Business Editor
Published:
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Vigor Industrial Evolution has entered an agreement to take over the former home of Christensen Yachts in Vancouver.
Vigor Industrial Evolution has entered an agreement to take over the former home of Christensen Yachts in Vancouver. (Provided photo) Photo Gallery

Vigor, a Portland-based shipbuilder with footprints in Washington and Oregon, delivered a massive boost to Vancouver’s riverfront industry Friday, announcing it has chosen the city to build a new generation U.S. Army landing craft under a nearly $1 billion contract.

Work at the Vancouver site in the Columbia Business Park is expected to begin in May or June, with other Vigor marine building preceding the Army project. About 200 skilled laborers will be hired initially; up to 200 more could be working at the site when it is fully operational.

Vigor will invest millions in capital upgrades and equipment to the site, company officials said.

The Portland-based company announced in late 2017 it had won the Army contract, which, at $979,390,000 over 10 years, is the largest in Vigor’s history. A search for a building location then ensued.

The project calls for construction of the Army’s landing craft called Maneuver Support Vessel (Light) or MSV(L). Projects now underway at Vigor’s company in Ballard — Vigor Kvichak — will shift to Vancouver. The Ballard facility will close.

Portland, Seattle and other locations in Washington were considered for the Army project and other Kvichak-acquired work. Vancouver appears to have emerged as a candidate only in recent months, and city officials didn’t know the company’s intentions for certain until this week.

Frank Foti, Vigor CEO, in an interview with The Columbian, praised Vancouver’s travel brochure-worthy charms and a quality manufacturing site for choosing the city.

“The quality of life is excellent in Vancouver,” said Foti, who owns a home in the city. “There is a culture of openness and friendliness that really draws you. There is great access to both rural and suburban living, which appeals to a great number of our craftspeople.”

Vigor representatives approached Vancouver officials “recently,” said City Manager Eric Holmes, one of three officials in Clark County privy to talks with the company as it made its decision.

“This is really fantastic,” Holmes said. “Not only does it bring these kinds of manufacturing jobs to Vancouver, it does so under the umbrella of a 10-year government contract. We capitalized on our status as a riverfront community, and it reflects on the ship building heritage we have in Vancouver.”

Holmes and Vigor officials discounted the influence of financial incentives in the company’s decision.

The city manager said Vigor received the same incentives that would be offered to any prospective industrial recruit, such as a cap on building permit fees and expedited permit processing. Also, the city would assist Vigor in trying to obtain the necessary approvals to build a dock in the future, Holmes said.

A Vigor spokeswoman said the company would seek an unspecified amount from Washington’s Economic Development Strategic Reserve Account to assist with the expenses of moving work to Vancouver.

Vigor, which is privately held with a mix of 2,300 union and non-union workers, has employees in several locations, including an existing site in Vancouver, its Portland headquarters and a 60-acre shipyard on Swan Island.

The company has previously done business in Oregon as Vigor Industrial LLC and in Washington as Vigor Shipyards Inc.

Operating through its subsidiaries, Vigor builds and repairs ships and provides related vessel maintenance services including painting, blasting and coating. It also builds ocean and inland barges. Customers include cruise lines, ferry systems and oil companies.

Kvichak Marine Industries in Ballard laid the groundwork to acquire the huge Army contract in 2012, three years before it was acquired by Vigor, becoming Vigor Kvichak. On Friday, workers were informed their facility would close and its projects would move to Vancouver. The 70 workers affected at Kvichak — it’s named after a river in Alaska — were offered the opportunity to move to the Vancouver location.

Also Friday, about 60 of the 500 workers at Vigor’s factory in Clackamas, Ore., were told their aluminum fabrication jobs would move to Vancouver. They, too, were offered the opportunity to follow their job to Vancouver, Foti said.

The Vancouver site will begin construction of the Army landing craft prototype this summer. Once the prototype is completed and testing and refinements have occurred, another 36 vessels will be built.

In addition to the Army landing craft production, the site will also be used to continue Vigor’s ongoing production of the Combatant Craft Medium for the U.S. Navy as well as for U.S. allies, the Response Boat-Medium for the U.S. Coast Guard and export market, Vigor Fast Interceptor, aluminum fast ferries and commercial workboats.

Vigor representatives contacted Vancouver officials at the end of November after learning of a potential site in Columbia Business Park.

Foti said Vigor’s existing site in Vancouver, the former Oregon Iron Works nearby on the riverfront at the former World War II-era Kaiser Shipyards, did not meet the needs for the aluminum-fabrication projects.

The site at 4400 S.E. Columbia Way in the Columbia Business Park is the former home of Christensen Yachts. Vigor is in the process of purchasing the site and the transaction is expected to be completed this summer.

Foti noted the marine heritage of the Christensen building in Friday’s news release.

“We are honored to carry forward the vision begun by (company founder) Dave” Christensen, Foti says in the release. “When I think of his alignment with the Vigor values of Truth, Responsibility, Evolution and Love, it’s Responsibility and Love that shine through. He stayed responsible to what he built, and his Love for the people who built amazing boats here was proven by Dave’s actions many times over.

“There’s a sign in the entry that reads, ‘Through these doors walk the finest boat builders in the world.’  The craftspeople of Vigor intend to honor that vision as we walk through those same doors every day,” Foti said.

Christensen died Oct. 15, 2018, years after having any connection with his namesake company, which has been embroiled in a lawsuit between members of the Christensen family and the company’s current owner, Tennessee investor Henry Luken. The parties reached a settlement earlier this week, according to court records, although the details of the settlement were not available.

Luken said on Friday that the Christensen Yachts business will continue at a new shipyard location near Tellico Lake, Tenn. Plans for the Tennessee facility were first announced in 2006, but according to a 2011 Columbian story, the company was hit hard by the recession starting in 2008 and had to halt construction of the second location. It never opened, Luken said, but he now plans to finish the site and move the company’s equipment over from the Vancouver shipyard.

“The company’s not closing down — I’m going to a facility that’s four times larger,” he said. “We’re moving probably 100 trucks of stuff from the West Coast to Tennessee.”

Vigor adds to Vancouver’s maritime history

Best remembered for the Kaiser Shipyards, Vancouver’s Columbia riverfront has a long maritime history.

The World War II-era operation was one of the defining institutions in Vancouver’s history, spawning a huge population and housing boom. The yard was along the Columbia River, just downstream from Marine Park; the old slipways are visible from an observation tower near the park’s boat launch.

Kaiser produced baby flattops, tank landing craft and Liberty ships. At its peak in December 1944, it employed 38,000 and led to creation of the Vancouver Housing Authority and such developments as McLoughlin Heights, Fruit Valley and Fourth Plain Village.

The WWII deal between the U.S. Maritime Commission and the Kaiser Co., a heavy-construction firm controlled by Henry Kaiser and his son Edgar, was signed Jan. 9, 1942. The first ship, the S.S. George Vancouver, was launched on July 4, 1942. The last ship was outfitted in May 1946.

Vancouver had been the site of a World War I shipyard as well, called the Standifer Shipyard, at what is now the Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 1. That shipyard went out of business by 1921. Today the site is home to a restaurant, WareHouse ’23.

A company Vigor acquired, Oregon Iron Works, also took on marine projects in Vancouver. In 2002, Oregon Iron Works helped build an 85-foot Coast Guard craft under a $2.4 million subcontract.

Reporter Anthony Macuk contributed to this story.

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