It’s rare when your workday calls for you to carefully approach and interact with a menacing, 50-foot-tall villainous robot. But such was the case for Grays Harbor resident Nathan Hoover.
It was a few years ago when Hoover, the project coordinator at Satsop Business Park in Elma, found himself inside a cavernous, 496-foot-tall concrete tower that served as a detention center for a Decepticon character in the 2017 movie Transformers: The Last Knight.
“I walk around here like I’m a big deal,” Hoover joked as he revisited the “set,” a narrow catwalk that spanned the tower’s 440-foot-wide base. His friendly, deadpan voice eerily reverberated off the tower’s curved interior walls. “I was demanding brown M&Ms only.”
The truth is much less sensational. At that time, a member of the Paramount Pictures production team saw Hoover while filming, thought he would fit the profile of a minor character in the story, and asked him whether he wanted to film a scene.
Sure. Why not?
“There was a track here,” Hoover explained, pointing at the length of the catwalk. “I made my way to a 20-foot-tall pole that I had to interact with. They made me do it 100 times or so. Later, they (used) CGI (to make) the pole that I was interacting with into a 50-foot-tall Transformer . . . It was fun. I’ll be able to tell my boys I was in a $300 million movie.”
That it was the setting for a Hollywood blockbuster is just one interesting facet of the 440-acre Satsop Business Park, located between Aberdeen and Olympia, which, nearly a half-century ago, was poised to become a facility that produced nuclear power.
When you think of the term “business park,” you might conjure the drab, soulless setting of The Office, or maybe a low-slung building filled with cubicle farms such as one found in Office Space.
None of these descriptors applies to Satsop Business Park.
For starters, its twin, vase-shaped cooling towers give the place a whiff of, say, The Simpsons’ Springfield. Narrow roads, both paved and gravel, thread their way between warehouses; office buildings; parking lots; and even the remnants of utilitarian, somewhat-dystopian Cold War-era buildings (the cooling towers, yes, but also two unfinished nuclear reactor buildings). And the larger, 1,800-acre site is ringed by a felted forest boundary from which wildlife such as deer, elk, and the rare black bear are known to emerge.
Even the park’s tenants are a little unconventional. Nearly three dozen of them lease everything from office space for a major call center, to dark fiber to power Internet connectivity, to a warehouse to grow marijuana, to open land where cars are stored. And, of course, there are the creative producers, such as Paramount Pictures, who scout the location for movies, music videos, and photo shoots.
And then there’s the preternatural, hinterland feeling one experiences when visiting the park, especially if you arrive from Tacoma or Seattle, which are about 65 miles and 95 miles away, respectively, and are saddled with notorious bottlenecks on Interstate 5 near Fife and Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“It does seem remote,” said Alissa Shay, who has worked as the park’s business development manager for a little over six years. “We hear that a lot. It’s kind of tough to overcome the view that it’s remote. That’s a challenge.”
According to Shay, when she first started working at the park, prospective clients from the East Coast or from large, out-of-town cities would fly into Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, drive south, take the highway exit west just past Olympia, and suddenly wonder, “Do people actually live around here that could work at my company?”
Part of Shay’s pitch to prospective tenants is that the park is a less-congested commute from Chehalis (40 miles) and Centralia (36 miles) to the south, Olympia (35 miles) to the north, and Hoquiam (25 miles) and Aberdeen (21 miles) to the west — five cities where, combined, approximately 100,000 people live.
“There are a lot of people who drive from Grays Harbor to Olympia for work,” she added. “I feel as though creating more job opportunities here actually allows our current residents to work close to home rather than travel outside the area to go to work.”
The site’s trajectory from a prospective nuclear power plant to an unorthodox business park dates to 1957, when the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), a statewide coalition of public utility companies, formed to build facilities that would provide power to homes and businesses.
WPPSS sensed the demand for hydropower would outpace supply. In 1971, it moved to build five nuclear power plants — three at Richland in Eastern Washington, in what became known as the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant, and two at Elma, in Grays Harbor County, in what became known as the Satsop Nuclear Power Plant.
Satsop was an ideal site. It was rural, situated near the Chehalis River, and located on a sandstone formation that made it seismically stable. Construction of Satsop’s reactors and towers began in 1977.
Five years later, however, the project was stymied by schedule delays and rising construction expenses — as well as the release of radioactive material at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania in 1979, which engendered a national discussion on the safety of nuclear power. The cost to complete the entire project ballooned from $4.1 billion in 1971 to $24 billion in 1982, and WPPSS earned the ignominious pronunciation: “Whoops!”
One year later, construction stopped, leaving Satsop with two cooling towers (one functionally complete, the other not), two partially completed reactor buildings, and ancillary buildings. The site never produced nuclear power or radioactive waste.
In 1996, Energy Northwest (formerly WPPSS) and the Bonneville Power Administration transferred the property over to the State of Washington. The state, in turn, handed the property over to the Grays Harbor Public Development Authority (PDA) two years later, along with $15 million to build roads, install fiber-optic lines, plant trees, and construct office buildings in the hopes of turning the site into a business park.
By 2006, the park was home to 18 businesses, including SafeHarbor, a call center that occupied 48,000 square feet of office space; Boise-Cascade (later NewWood Corporation), which occupied a 255,000-square-foot building and turned scrap plastics and wood fiber into usable building materials; and Brown-Minneapolis Tank, a company that occupied a 300,000-square-foot building to fabricate steel.
In 2013, the Grays Harbor PDA disbanded as its members retired, and the property was turned over to the Port of Grays Harbor, which continues to own it today.
The Port has faced many challenges in operating Satsop Business Park.
SafeHarbor shuttered in 2008, NewWood Corporation closed down in 2012, and Brown-Minneapolis Tank closed in 2014. The later closures left vacant two large buildings with more than a half-million square feet combined. It’s a vacuum that exists today.
“Out of all the buildings in the business park, this one has the most infrastructure for power,” Shay explained, during a walking tour of the former NewWood building, a dark, chilly structure that still held remnants of old manufacturing equipment. “If someone is looking for a lot of power, typically, this is the first place they go because it has the power; it’s ready to go. Other buildings take a little bit of work . . . With the size and scope of this building, it could probably work for some type of manufacturing or distribution company.”
As a result of these closures, according to Shay, the park posted a net operating loss of approximately $860,000 in 2016, and approximately $84,000 in 2017. Shay said the park is expected to break even in 2018, but still post an operating loss of $46,000 in 2019.
But the park also has notched some wins.
Boston-based Xpress Natural Gas signed a 10-year contract in October 2015 to lease 4.3 acres on which to operate a compressed natural gas terminal.
Matthew Smith, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Xpress Natural Gas, said, “From the start, the level of support and outreach from the Satsop Business Park has been helpful and refreshing. We originally looked at other locations in Puget Sound, but were fortunately introduced to Satsop Business Park, and everything clicked.”
The company, which took advantage of the site’s existing natural gas lines, invested more than $6 million to build a compressed natural gas distribution facility, as well as to purchase equipment, trucks, and trailers to support the 10-person operation.
Twelve months later, Fuller Hill Development Company signed a five-year contract to lease a 50,000-square-foot warehouse in which to operate its subsidiary, Global Real Estate Properties, which operates an indoor cannabis-cultivation facility. The company invested $6.5 million in the building, and employs approximately 70 people.
“The assets, infrastructure, and people at the Satsop Business Park — including warehouse space, power, water, and the excellent staff — are well-suited to our needs,” said Global Real Estate Properties President Arkadi Gontmakher.
In 2017, Overstock.com opened its Evergreen Customer Care Call Center, bringing 150 jobs to Grays Harbor County. Later that year, the company expanded its operation and doubled its employee headcount.
“Our Elma-based associates are performing well and providing excellent customer care, and the response from the community has been everything we could have hoped for thus far,” said Carter Lee, Overstock.com’s senior vice president. According to Lee, the company moved up its plan to expand its Evergreen Customer Care center and looked forward to “finding more amazing associates from the community to join our Overstock family.”
In 2017, California-based Pasha Automotive Services, leased 65 acres at Satsop Business Park on which to store vehicles.
Grays Harbor College operates a truck-driving school and forestry program at the park. The site’s tunnels, buildings, and forestland serve as training sites for rope rescues and close-quarters combat for the U.S. military and the Seattle Fire Department.
As for the future of Satsop Business Park, Shay said networking and being flexible and accommodating when it comes to finding space for companies have served the park well.
“What’s interesting about most of our recent tenants is that if someone needs a space right now, we can do that,” Shay explained. “We had the office space for Overstock that was available right now, ready to go, all set up, and pretty much move-in ready. It was the same with Xpress Natural Gas. They really needed a space, and we were able to negotiate an agreement within days.
“All of our recent successes have come out of just people who know about us,” she continued. “Someone is looking for a spot and they say, ‘I know the Satsop Business Park could have something.’”
And while being crowned the next distribution hub or headquarters for Amazon is prized now, Satsop Business Park’s strategy is a little more nuanced.
“Things are growing quickly in the Puget Sound region, and we can benefit from that, but not in the way that most people think,” said Shay. “The growth of companies in that area is causing a reverberation in the South Sound region. As rent prices rise, we are also seeing a growth in demand for logistics and distribution space in the South Sound region. This industry wasn’t on our radar 10 years ago and is very robust today. We believe we will see growth from existing companies looking to relocate from outside of Puget Sound, or from subcontractors or ancillary activities from large companies in Washington.”