Old Columbus Lumber Co. giving way to new owner

BROOKHAVEN — Eddie Nelson slows the big loader to a stop and steps down from its air-conditioned cab into the wet heat of high noon.

Red and yellow hardhats move in and out of dark corners all around him as he walks slowly across the spongy ground, soft with mud and sawdust and woodchips that have been dropped there for seven decades. The cruel rhythm of a jackhammer carries through the thick air from his left; fire flies from an acetylene torch burning to his right.

Up ahead, another pile of rafters comes crashing out of a second-story bay as one of the oldest Columbus Lumber Co. mill houses, built in 1969, is slowly sawed and cut to pieces. It was a top-of-the-line facility when Nelson joined on in 1978.

Head down, he stops at a pile of mangled tin and squeezes a bent edge between his fingers.

“There’s been a lot of hard work put into this place,” said Nelson, who now works for Rex Lumber Brookhaven as an operations manager. “The place took care of a lot of families for a great many years.”

The grounds fall quiet as the demolition workers with Washington-based Rawlings Industrial break for lunch. In half an hour, they’ll crank their saws, light their torches and keep carving away.

And no matter how he feels about bringing down the sacred, bleached-gray millhouses, Nelson will climb back in his loader and help. The old components have to come down before Rex Lumber can begin a $10 million investment to make the sawmill new again and bring more than 100 jobs back to the area next year.

“We’re anxious to get it back up, especially to get all those who were laid off back in here and get them some income again,” Nelson said. “Not all of them have found work. I get calls from about 15-20 people every week wanting to know when we’re going to be back open. I tell them to get a job somewhere if they can and we’ll call them back when we’re ready.”

Nelson was one of the few who survived the death of Columbus Lumber in September 2009, when Bank of America foreclosed on the sawmill after it had incurred losses for almost two straight years. One hundred jobs were eliminated.

Good news came three months later when Florida-based Rex Lumber LLC bought the 145-acre sawmill and announced plans to renovate and reopen. The company sold part of the mill to Alabama-based Great Southern Wood Preserving, which is already open and shipping its famous YellaWood products from the site.

It’s been a quiet six months since Rex Lumber announced its plans for the sawmill, but general manager Doug Boykin said the big investments and developments charted out in January remain all systems go. The destruction wrought on the old millhouses by Rawlings Industrial is the first of many steps that will be taken to revive the grand old mill, he said.

“We are just at the very first of the project,” Boykin said. “We just started on the demolition, and it’s got about eight months to finish. But the wheels are turning, and we’re ready to get it done.”

Late this fall, the former Columbus Lumber employees will get the call to come back to work, Boykin said, and the sawmill will open and begin producing lumber after Jan. 1, sometime in the first quarter of 2011. Rex Lumber executives are planning on a $4 million annual payroll, but much more money will start flowing in the community again once loggers, truck drivers and more members of forestry’s vast economic web see steady work again.

Federal, state and local leaders are hard at work to get that web spun.

Wirt Peterson, director of Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District, said his agency is “making progress” on a $1.3 million grant that will be used to widen and resurface a crumbly old road running into the heart of the sawmill that Rex Lumber will use as its main point of access. The new road was one of a handful of projects company officials listed as imperative for their success in Brookhaven, as the new mill is expected to bring in more logs and produce more lumber than Columbus.

“I’ve gotten some positive comments at this point from the Mississippi Development Authority and the Economic Development Administration,” Peterson said. “We’re talking about creating more than 100 jobs here in Southwest Mississippi, so that’s a substantial project. The state of Mississippi and the federal government know that.”

Lincoln County supervisors and Brookhaven aldermen are standing by to do their parts, having promised earlier this year to provide Rex Lumber with select property tax abatements once the mill opens. Aldermen have already cleared the biggest obstacle, circumventing a city ordinance that prohibits industries from drilling their own water wells by allowing Rex to reopen a pair of dormant wells and pay a monthly rate for their usage.

If all goes according to plan, the pieces will fall into place over the next six to eight months.

Some of those pieces are falling now — the wood waste is piled in the dumpster, the huge steel staircases and control cabs are set aside to be scrapped.

“It’s going to be for the better,” Nelson said as another piece of truss work hit the ground. “We’ll have a whole lot better sawmill once it’s done.”

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