WAHOO, Neb. — Wahoo's new $17 million steel plant is poised to compete with the world, its owner said Thursday as the company celebrated the opening of the foundry.
“Everything we've done with the plant is lean process,” said Phil Teggart, owner of Omaha Steel Castings Co. “We can outperform everyone.”
The biggest savings, he said in an interview before hosting a lunch and public tours by hundreds of visitors, will be time.
From start to finish, the plant on the eastern edge of Wahoo can turn out finished steel castings in four weeks. That's one-half to one-third the time of most competitors, and saving time means added profits, Teggart said.
That's proof, he said, that American industry can hold its own in world markets despite the cheap labor available in some countries. “If U.S. manufacturers could get their heads out of the sand, they could see that,” he said.
The plant is shifting 30 miles to the west from its long-time site at 48th and Farnam Streets in Omaha. So far, 50 workers report to the new location, with the 125 others continuing production in Omaha. Within the next several weeks, Teggart said, everyone will report to the new 130,000-square-foot plant.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman praised the company's decision to build a plant that will add jobs and boost productivity.
“This is why we have the third-lowest unemployment rate in the nation,” said the governor, who grew up in Wahoo and was joined by his mother, Irene, at the ceremony.
Among those touring the plant was Michael Gonser of Omaha, who ate breakfast at the Wigwam Cafe before heading to the open house. His mother grew up in Wahoo as part of the Virgl clan that emigrated from Moravia, a region of Czechoslovakia.
“This is a huge day for Wahoo,” Gonser said. “It certainly is going to change the town. It's a positive.”
One change: Every weekday, hundreds of Wahoo's 4,500 residents commute to work in Omaha, Lincoln and Fremont. Now there are new commuters headed to Wahoo from Omaha.
One of them will be Robert Graves, a finisher at Omaha Steel who got his first look at the new plant during Thursday's tour. He plans to commute to Wahoo, a 45-minute drive from his north Omaha home, as soon as his work migrates west.
“This is really nice,” Graves said, looking at the steel-sided building as he waited outside for the open house. “I'm committed. I love my job, and I'm here to stay.”
He and dozens of other Omaha Steel workers, making their first visit to the plant, wore new black company T-shirts with the motto “A solid history. A bright future. Wahoo, NE” on the back. A crane held a huge American flag aloft outside the plant, and a bulldozer sat in the gravel parking lot. Omaha Steel made parts for both.
Teggart said he wants as many of the Omaha employees as possible to follow the 107-year-old company to Wahoo, although some live an hour or more away in Council Bluffs.
His goal is to double production and increase employment to at least 250 as the economy recovers and orders increase from customers such as heavy equipment makers Caterpillar, Gardner Denver and Link-Belt and pet food manufacturer Extru-Tech Inc.
He expects workers to be available to fill new job openings or replace workers who don't make the move. At a job fair held in February, 120 qualified applicants showed up.
For Wahoo, the prospect of a 200-employee industrial plant is the equivalent of an 18,000-employee plant coming to Omaha. Teggart said one economist estimated the plant and its payroll would have a $32 million-a-year economic impact on the community.
The cost of the plant, originally estimated at $12 million, grew as planning and construction went ahead, Teggart said. He had hoped to find more used equipment but ended up buying nearly all new. Stricter environmental rules required huge air filters known as bag houses, and there were some other cost overruns.
The plant occupies half of the 20-acre site. It was in a flood plain, requiring 3 feet of fill before construction could start. The 8,800 truckloads of dirt came from Lake Wanahoo, a recreation and flood control lake just north of town. The plant also needed extra water mains for fire suppression.
But all the construction hurdles are behind now, and Teggart was emotional at the start of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, thanking the staff and their family members and others who helped with the project.
The new plant is much more automated than the old one, he said, with less manhandling of the heavy casting molds and faster processes. Of the sand and other material used in casting, more than 95 percent is reused. Scrap steel, which is stored outside in Omaha, will be piled inside the plant at Wahoo.
There's a separate building to store parts patterns, which are made almost entirely of wood and too valuable to have vulnerable to a fire.
The plant and its electric furnaces will add about 5 megawatts of electrical load to the Wahoo area, said Nebraska Public Power District spokesman Mark Becker, diversifying the town's portfolio of energy users. That's enough to power 1,500 homes. Supplier and vendors may add facilities near the steel foundry, he said.
Doug Watts, executive director of the Wahoo Chamber of Commerce, said some small communities end up with manufacturing facilities that overwhelm the town's resources, but Omaha Steel is “just right.”
Wahoo is the seat of Saunders County, and Omaha Steel soon will be its largest employer, passing the Saunders Medical Center.
Wahoo Mayor Janet A. Jonas said Teggart has become a strong Wahoo booster. He lives in Papillion but is considering a move closer to the plant.
Jerry Divis from Home Real Estate in Wahoo said he has heard of some rental requests but so far no housing sales in town related to the new plant, and that's fine with him.
“They're just getting started. I like slow growth,” he said. “Two to five houses a year coming out of there would be a perfect situation for Wahoo. We wouldn't want 200 people looking for houses tomorrow because we don't have them.
“I think the community and the plant will grow great with each other.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where the Virgl clan that emigrated from.