Georgia chopsticks factory conjures failed Range experiment

I recently learned about this Georgia factory making chopsticks and exporting them to China. This NPR story points out the contrast of the phenomenon, an American company sending chopsticks to China while we fail to produce so many of our own goods, including electronic devices we ourselves invented.

Folks from the Iron Range might remember the chopsticks factory built in Hibbing that operated from 1987 to 1989 to serve the Japanese market. A $3 million investment by the IRRRB, encouraged by then-Iron Range native Gov. Rudy Perpich, helped open the factory which closed rather quickly when demand for the chopsticks seized up.

People close to the situation back then have told me that the locally-grown aspen wood used in the chopsticks proved to be of insufficient quality. The company blamed archaic machinery used at the time. Critics point fingers at Perpich and Iron Range economic developers for getting caught up in a boondoggle. Perpich supporters blame the lofty promises of the Canadian company who claimed that the aspen wood chopsticks could be built efficiently on the Range.

I simply see this story as quaint. The IRRRB put in $3 million in local mining revenue, with $1.5 million more in local bonds and investments. For this a company actually built a factory and employed people for two years. That factory is a printing facility now, run by the company that publishes most of the Iron Range’s larger newspapers. How many current economic development projects have involved vastly larger amounts of money without yet breaking the soil in some cases? Even accounting for inflation, the “cost per job” metric has grown to a staggering high.

The Iron Range chopsticks factory is no shining example of success, but isn’t it fascinating how our economic development standards have gotten even lower since then?

I wish the Georgia people well. Sounds like they’re using a more adept kind of wood. Truth is, had the aspen worked in the Hibbing plant that thing might still be operating.

Meantime, enjoy a journey in the wayback machine with two articles I found at a website called the Green Chopsticks Project:

Japanese buy USA chopsticks
USA Today; Oct 13, 1987

Folks in Hibbing, Minn., may not eat sushi, but a new business in town has whetted their appetites. Lakewood Industries Inc. today sends 12 million pairs of disposable chopsticks to Japan.

It’s the first shipment of what Ian Ward, president of Lakewood’s Canadian parent, hopes will be a $15 million-a-year business. Ward says his is the only USA company exporting chopsticks to the Orient. He expects to produce 7 million pairs of aspen wood chopsticks a day. Says plant manager Scott Karppinen:

“At this point, they’re willing to take anything we can produce.”

Japan’s scarce timber and high labor costs, along with rising affluence and fear of communicable diseases, have led to a shortage of disposable chopsticks there, Ward says.Another factor: “The Japanese have been looking for innocuous products to import.”

Flash forward two years:

Chopstick Factory Closes After Picking Up Big Debt
Wall Street Journal Jul 20, 1989

HIBBING, Minn. — A chopsticks factory, praised as a bold, bootstraps effort to compete with the Japanese and boost the depressed economy of Minnesota’s Iron Range, closed here after piling up more than $7 million in debt but few chopsticks.

The plant’s owner, Lakewood Forest Products Ltd. of Vancouver, Canada, blamed balky machinery and lack of cash for the closure Tuesday, but called it temporary. “The story of our demise is a little premature,” said Ian Ward, Lakewood’s president. He said the company is seeking $1 million from investors to reopen, but that promised backing from a Japanese investor had fallen through.

The plant drew widespread attention when it opened three years ago. But it never came close to producing the seven million pairs of chopsticks a day that its backers promised would produce a profit and 120 jobs.

Project supporters said the plant could revitalize the Iron Range economy, which lost thousands of jobs because of the steel industry’s slump. Critics ridiculed the idea, calling it a pork-barrel project for Hibbing — Gov. Rudy Perpich’s home town. Lakewood raised nearly $4.5 million from state and local industrial revenue bonds and loans.

Embarrassed state officials said they planned to launch an investigation into the plant’s operations.

Ah, a bygone day when economic developers could feel shame.

(h/t Alex Jokela)


  1. Thanks for posting this bit of history.


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