By Mannix Porterfield
Blessed with hardwoods unrivaled hardly anywhere on the planet, the natural question that comes to mind for many is: Why doesn’t West Virginia have a major furniture making industry?
State Forester Randy Dye conceded Tuesday the question by Delegate William Hartman, D-Randolph, is a tough one to answer.
First of all, Dye said, one must look at the “furniture cluster” in North Carolina, one that boasts 275 acres of showroom space and plays hosts to 85,000 customers a year.
Next is North Carolina State University, which offers a degree in furniture manufacturing, Dye said.
“That’s two big plusses,” he told the Forest Management Review Commission.
“After that, you could look at tax rates and incentives for research and development.”
While the deck might look stacked against West Virginia, manufacturer makers in the state could play a strong hand in the industry, he suggested.
For one thing, there is a renewed demand for institutional furniture — hospitals, universities, government buildings and the like, the forester said.
“There seems to be a void there that can be filled,” Dye said.
“Here in West Virginia, that’s a segment we could look at. That’s an opportunity we may have here in West Virginia.”
True furniture makers are scarce in the Mountain State and there seems to be little inclination for those plants in operation to expand, Dye said.
“When I graduated from West Virginia University and landed there (North Carolina) in the ‘70s, every 10 miles of ground there was a sawmill cutting what I call furniture squares,” he recalled.
“Those have disappeared for higher volume type operations.”
A study by two Harvard University professors suggested that North Carolina team with Virginia as part of its “furniture cluster” strategy because of the hardwood spillover in the two states.
“Someone might conceive they could spill into West Virginia and maybe that’s the answer,” Dye said.
“Rather than re-invent the wheel, we need to become part of that wheel.”
All is not rosy for the wood industry in the Tarheel State, however, as the study points out, since the once Big Three of tobacco, textiles and furniture have been replaced by chemicals, food processing, technology and pharmaceuticals, banking and auto parts, the study shows.
“Rural areas are declining,” Dye said. “People follow the jobs.”
In fact, North Carolina ranks second in the country in the loss of manufacturing jobs, but still boasts the world’s 20th largest economy.
Add to the changing times is a new attitude among buyers, Dye said.
“When I started my career, furniture was an investment, a lifelong investment, quality furniture in the house,” he told the commission.
“The new generation, in their bigger houses — sizes have doubled — looks at furniture as a fashion trend and disposable and really don’t use it as long as what we once knew.”
Moreover, the traditional furniture stores are losing their share of the market, Dye said.
That is attributed to an invasion into the market by Walmart, Target and Kmart, typifying high production of low-end furniture, shipped from overseas, the forester said.
“And the Chinese are investing in productivity like never before,” Dye said.
“Those companies that make equipment to manufacture have moved from the United States to China. They have followed the furniture market and that has created a big problem for some furniture makers.”
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