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The History of the Wood Manufacturing Industry in Nassau County
June 21, 2017
Laura DiBella


Ever hear of the term “Industry Cluster”?  It’s a rather common term in economic development circles and certainly provides a better path to success for us economic developers.  We are fortunate enough to have a major industry cluster here in Nassau County, a wood manufacturing industry cluster at that, one that has been the foundation of our economy since before most of us were born and is thriving for as long as I can see thanks to some recent events.

Significant economic development in Nassau County began with the paper industry in the late 1930s.  It was a somber time in our nation’s history being in the throes of depression and the only work to be had were low paying jobs in shrimping, pogey fishing and lumber.  The future looked dim on the economic growth front locally for the foreseeable future at that time.

Container Corporation of America (today’s WestRock) planted their roots here first, establishing a paperboard mill, which began production in December 1937 in the city of Fernandina Beach at the northern tip of Amelia Island.  The development of the mill was by some measure a consequence of world events.  In the mid to late 1930s, importing wood from Norway became increasingly problematic and Container Corporation of America turned its attention to the South for raw material.

When Container Corporation of America began its search for plant locations in the South, they found themselves enthusiastically welcomed by the state of Florida and the Mayor of Fernandina.  They chose the Fernandina site for seven reasons:

  1. Cheap pulpwood
  2. Natural harbor
  3. Rail connections
  4. Artesian wells
  5. Favorable housing and labor markets
  6. State tax exemption
  7. Strong cooperation from city, county and state government

Thanks to the above, they changed the course of history here in Nassau County.  After a series of changing hands through the years the mill is now owned by WestRock, the second largest American packaging company, one that employs 42,000 employees in 30 countries worldwide.  The Fernandina Beach plant occupies 216 acres and its 480 employees produce 900,000 tons of paper (eight percent of WestRock’s total production) each year.  About 30 percent of that paper is exported, primarily to the Caribbean, but domestic clients include pizza companies and Anheuser Busch, as well.

Shortly after Container Corporation of America drove their stake in the ground, Rayonier (today’s Rayonier Advanced Materials) joined the party and erected a very different kind of pulp mill, a sulfite mill, rare these days and a precious resource for everyone that enjoys modern handheld technology.  Their first plant in the Southeast was constructed in 1937 near downtown Fernandina Beach.  Today, they serve as a leading global supplier of high purity cellulose, a natural polymer commonly used in applications such as cell phones, computer screens, filters, textiles and pharmaceuticals.  The Fernandina plant produces 155,000 metric tons of softwood cellulose specialties per year and employs more than 300 people.  It contributes $35 million annually to Florida’s wages and salaries and $2 million to Florida’s property and sales taxes.  Routinely ranked among the nation’s top 50 exporters, the plant ships products to five continents, 35 countries and 80 ports around the world.

In 2014, Rayonier Inc. divided its land resources businesses from its performance fibers business, creating two independent publicly-traded companies – Rayonier Inc. (RYN) and Rayonier Advanced Materials (RYAM).  Today, Rayonier Inc. stands as the fourth largest timber operator in the world, owning over 130,000 acres in Nassau County alone.  Approximately 26,000 acres of prime acreage in Nassau has recently been repositioned to create the ultra-mixed use development in central Nassau County called the East Nassau Community Planning Area, home to the up and coming Wildlight Community, as well as, the certified mega-site, Crawford Diamond Industrial Park, in western Nassau County, entitled for up to 10.5 million square feet of heavy industrial space.

Rayonier Advanced Materials remains focused on the production of cellulose specialties products and in May 2017 acquired Montreal-based Tembec Inc. for approximately $807 million USD.  Tembec is a manufacturer of forest products – lumber, paper, pulp and high purity cellulose – and a global leader in sustainable forest management practices.  Principal operations are in Canada and France. Tembec has approximately 3,000 employees and annual sales of approximately $1.5 billion (Canadian).  The combined company with leading and complementary positions in key high purity cellulose end-uses will offer customers exceptional product breadth across the spectrum of high purity cellulose products and create additional growth opportunities in packaging and forest products.  For Rayonier Advanced Materials, the move will position it as a stronger, more balanced company with a further diversified customer and operational base.  It will also benefit from enhanced economies of scale and establish a global manufacturing footprint to grow its competitiveness in international markets and expand its pipeline of innovative products through R&D facilities in the U.S. and France.

Thanks to the relatively new (2016), natural gas powered Eight Flags LLC 20 MW combined heat and power (CHP) plant, a partnership between Rayonier Advanced Materials, Chesapeake Utilities and Florida Public Utilities (FPU) built on land adjacent to the Rayonier Advanced Materials facility, a new opportunity arose with Borregaard A.S., and a joint venture between two arch rivals – LignoTech Florida – was born.

On December 9th, 2016, LignoTech Florida, a venture of 128 years running Borregaard A.S. of Norway (55%) and Rayonier Advanced Materials (RYAM) (45%) was made official to the world.  The capital investment of the two phase project is estimated at $135 million and will be located on a site adjacent to the Rayonier Advanced Materials facility in Fernandina Beach.  The first phase is expected to commence commercial operations in early 2018 and the 150,000 metric tons of dry substance per year facility will produce high performance lignin products based on renewable raw materials.  The installation of this facility, combined with the environmental benefits of its products, will produce significant positive impacts on energy efficiency and Greenhouse Gas emissions.

For over 30 years, Mulch Manufacturing has called western Nassau County home.  Mulch Manufacturing is the largest producer of packaged mulch products in the country.  Providing a full range of mulch products, they harvest the raw materials, process the mulch at several locations throughout the country, package it and ship it in their own fleet of trucks or contract carriers where they are then distributed through the largest of mass merchandisers, as well as, small independent retailers in the USA.

Masonite International Corporation established a presence in central Nassau County in the unincorporated town of Yulee almost 20 years ago.  Founded in 1925 and now headquartered in Tampa, Florida, they design, manufacture and sell interior and exterior doors for the new construction and repair, renovation, and remodeling sectors of the residential and non-residential building construction markets worldwide.

I can’t even begin to imagine what economic development in Nassau County would be without wood.  We are thankful every day for not only being among the most bountiful wood basket in the Southeast, but also for having a generous handful of companies that make our local industry that much more specialized, along with their workforce happily employed.

Laura DiBella is the Executive Director of the Nassau County Economic Development Board (NCEDB).  Follow the Diamonds to Dollars Blog to read more blogs by NCEDB staff and other board members.

Sources:

https://fernandinaobserver.com/2016/04/12/todays-westrock-carries-on-tradition-of-container-corporation-of-america/

http://rayonieram.com/about/history/

http://www.borregaard.com/

http://www.lignotech.com/About-us/History

http://www.tembec.com/

http://www.mulchmfg.com/

https://www.masonite.com/corporate/about-us

The NCEDB exists because of the generous support of the Nassau County Board of Commissioners, our local municipalities and economic development partners.
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