• New power plant helps Ethan Allen factory
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     | July 14,2006
     
    Carla Occaso/Times Argus

    Ethan Allen workers enjoy their annual summer picnic at the Beecher Falls plant Thursday to kick off a two-week vacation.

    BEECHER FALLS – Vermont's only remaining furniture manufacturer taking wood from forest to sawmill and finished product now is producing something else too: Electrical power, which will allow it to cut electricity costs and stay in the U.S.

    World famous for producing high-quality wooden furniture, Ethan Allen Inc. has 300 retail outlets throughout the globe. It started in Beecher Falls in 1896, and with the help of a new renewable energy electricity turbine, the landmark company may stay here a few more years.

    Beecher Falls is the northeastern-most town in Vermont, bordering Canada, New Hampshire and multiple thousands of timberland acres, and the plant is a critical employer in a region with limited jobs. Hundreds of people turned out for a ribbon-cutting ceremony that attracted Vermont and New Hampshire officials who jointly funded the $900,000 power proj-ect after company president Farooq Kathwari in 2003 challenged them to help reduce costs so he could keep manufacturing operations in New England.

    "Anything to keep our jobs here," said Peter Bunnell of Beecher Falls, an Ethan Allen employee for the past 29 years. "My father worked here 33 years," he added.

    State officials from both Vermont and New Hampshire joined Ethan Allen employees at the Beecher Falls plant Thursday to celebrate the soon-to-be installed power turbine designed by Vermont Electric Co-op based in Johnson. VEC first worked on getting a "gassifier" to make power using left-over wood, but company officials had trouble getting equipment from an overseas vendor, said David Hallquist, chief executive officer with Vermont Electric Co-op.

    So VEC engineers then came up with a design to build a custom-designed co-generation turbine "using steam they already use to power the plant," Hallquist said. "It is commonly done in the automotive industry," he added.

    The turbine would provide 700 kilowatts of power and reduce the company's power costs by about 20 percent.

    "It is a great project," said Rep. William Johnson, R-Canaan, who owns a dairy farm about eight miles from the Ethan Allen plant. "It is great to see Vermont and New Hampshire working together."

    Saying that Ethan Allen is as important to the Northeast Kingdom as IBM is to Essex Junction, David O'Brien, commissioner of the state Department of Public Service, said the project would help save money for a "very, very, very important employer."

    The company employs 900 workers in Vermont, with about 500 working in Beecher Falls and about 400 working in Orleans, said Daniel J. Kurzman, Ethan Allen's general manager for the Northeast region. More than half come from neighboring New Hampshire.

    Originally called the Beecher Falls Company, the first sawmill was built near the present plant in 1896 to make furniture using prison labor, according to a plaque inside the building. Back then, Beecher Falls employees cut lumber to send to prisoners to make bedsteads and "chamber suites," until a law was passed to ban prison-made goods. Then, during the Reconstruction Act after the Great Depression, two New York City entrepreneurs built a facility to house the company they named Ethan Allen after Vermont's Revolutionary War figure. They considered the area ideal for manufacturing furniture because it has "enough trees on the surrounding mountains to make furniture for the next hundred years."

    But in recent years, manufacturing jobs in the area have been struggling to survive.

    Due to intense global competition with China and other countries, Northeast Kingdom workers lost jobs in droves in the early 2000s as Ethan Allen shut its doors in Island Pond, Kimberly Clark closed in East Ryegate and the International Paper Company ceased operations. Those present in Beecher Falls seemed grateful to be able to keep Ethan Allen here despite intense competition.

    "It really is a miracle we are here today," said David Hallquist, chief executive officer of Vermont Electric Co-op. "I never dreamed anything could happen as powerful as this."


    **Story corrected for incorrect spelling on July 17, 2006.

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