Reliable electricity and internet.
That’s all Sam Palmeter wants for his business.
And he’s not alone. That’s what Scott Dorman wants for the Marlette Oil and Gas station at M-46 and M-24. Since the two are neighbors – Palmeter’s Laser Marking Technologies is at 1101 W. Sanilac Road (M-46) – they decided to seek outside help with their shared concerns.
So they brought some local leaders – state Sen. Kevin Daley of Lapeer, state Rep. Phillip Green of Millington, Tuscola County Economic Development Commission director Steve Erickson and county commissioner Kim Vaughan – to LMT’s facility March 11 to learn what the two firms do and why they require reliable infrastructure to do it.
The pair also wanted to make local lawmakers and leaders understand that reliable electricity and internet is an issue for many people and businesses throughout the Thumb.
While Dorman’s facility is open and public, few in the area are aware of what Palmeter’s firm does. It is one of the top firms in the nation in producing laser-etching machines. They create 120-130 of them each year – they sell for $30,000 to $100,000 apiece – for aerospace, the federal government, firearms companies, the oil and gas industry, international firms. In fact, every 10-speed transmission housing built for the Ford F-150 pickup is etched by a laser designed and created by LMT (www.lasermarktech.com).
“We’re into everything,” said Rick Weisbarth, president of sales and industrial development at LMT.
And LMT needs reliable internet and electricity to remain competitive.
If a customer calls from California and needs to see the actual process as it happens, LMT’s staff creates a sample and sends it with photos and videos. Once the customer has that information and the sample, LMT hosts a web video conference so they can discuss the process and actually run samples while the customer is watching, remotely.
“That way we don’t have to fly equipment out there and do a demo,” said Weisbarth. “So it saves a lot and puts us at a competitive advantage in almost every instance, because our cost of sale isn’t the same.”
Palmeter, president of engineering and new market development, said the firm also needs good broadband service in order to grow. LMT recently started an applications laboratory and demonstration site in Sarasota, Florida. He said they want to add similar facilities in the four corners of the nation.
“Our customers need to have the ability to have their machines serviced, whatever they need, within their own time zones,” he said.
LMT wants to use voice-over-internet-protocol service to speak with Florida and wherever else it sets up offices, Palmeter said, “because with different facilities, we need to be able to hit a switch and be able to talk to Sarasota without actually dialing all of the time. But every time the power goes out, we risk our existing system losing a card. That’s at a cost of $1,800 a card and the cost of having a technician come out.”
They are not getting enough bandwidth with $600-a-month fiber-optic internet – though Palmeter said they could if they were willing to pay $1,000 a month – through CenturyTel. Palmeter said he realizes that price is steep because he’s paying off the cost of having the service brought to his facility, but he’s paying about $20 a month for better service in Sarasota.
“It is kind of a travesty that this is happening,” he said.
Dorman, general manager of Marlette Oil and Gas, is getting more reliable internet service for his point-of-sale computer system because he was able to connect to an AirAdvantage fiber optic cable running up M-24 to Caro and beyond.
Palmeter said he could tap into that same service – he said he won’t go with a wireless service because it isn’t reliable – if he was willing to spend an estimated $12,000 to have it extended the estimated quarter mile from the intersection of the two highways.
Erickson said he might have a solution. He said the EDC might be able to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture or someone to fund the extension of fiber optic broadband if they can show how LMT will make up for it with improved business over five years.
“But that doesn’t solve the regional issue,” said Green. “That’s what I am looking at.”
“Let’s see if we can get the money to pull that line,” Erickson said. “Let’s solve one problem at a time.”
While that might resolve one issue, reliable power was more elusive.
Both Dorman and Palmeter said the aging power grid causes concerns and problems. When Dorman loses power, the pumps stop working and the computers resort to a battery backup. The store has a backup generator, but there is a delay before it starts. When the pumps stop, he said, “that irritates the customer base, because they have to power down and then wait for it to come back up.
“People get mad, and when they do, they won’t come back.”
Palmeter, too, has a backup generator that kicks in 17 seconds after the facility loses power. But that might be too late in some cases. Often, he said, they get one sample to mark for a customer, especially those supplying the military. “We get one crack at that product,” he said. “Once we get the part here, we get one crack at it. And if the power happens to drop in the middle of that test in the lab, we can’t start all over again.”
Both Palmeter and Dorman also say they aren’t informed when their service provider – Thumb Electric – is going to switch from one service center to another, thereby resulting in a drop or loss of power. If they knew those things, Palmeter said, they could plan accordingly.
While Green and Daley said they might be able to do something legislatively to require power providers to warn all customers – especially commercial ones – of such things, Erickson said adequate power is an issue plaguing development throughout the Thumb.
“We’ve had a number of large opportunities, especially in agriculture, to build,” he said, “but the reality is no matter where we wind up putting them, DTE says, we cannot power them up there.”
Erickson said the only place DTE can provide the power is in Caro, but Caro is running out of industrial property.
Quality Roasting, he used as an example, was ready to locate its soybean processing plant in Akron. The village had the roads, the railroad and the land, but it didn’t have the power. And DTE said it would cost them $500,000 to get the power.
“No company is going to come up here and put in a half a million dollars” just to get power, Erickson said.
Eventually they found the land in Gilford Township, but even then DTE is spending $300,000 to bring power to the plant.
“Every project has issues unique to itself, but we do have a problem and the main problem in the county is the wires are too thin,” Erickson said. “So when you go to Akron, for instance, the problem is they would have to upgrade all of the wire, because the original wire that was put in is a very low-grade wire. It can’t handle the additional power.
“If they (DTE) could provide it, the reality is the poles can’t handle it.”
Dorman said the issue seems to begin once electrical lines cross into Tuscola County. He said their Marlette facility, which gets its electricity from DTE, seldom has power issues.
But Palmeter doesn’t want to have to move his business south in order to find the reliable services his facility needs. It might cost him even more valuable employees. His current staff lives in Lapeer, Mayville, Bay Port, Saginaw, Marlette and Caro.
“We are building world-class technology in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We have damned good people here. The only reason I haven’t moved further south, into Auburn Hills, is because a lot of the people here are not going to drive from Sandusky down there. And I am never going to be able to replace them. This is a very specialized operation and you can’t just find people who can do this work.”
Green said the issues went beyond what was happening in Fremont Township.
“How can we become, on this peninsula, a leader in attracting industry?” he said. “I believe we have the possibility of being a world-class area. But there are some drawbacks to being here.”
Dorman said the way for his business to grow is for the area to create some kind of commercial and industrial growth. Erickson said the EDC sees Fremont Township as the next area for commercial and industrial growth. Palmeter said additional commercial and industrial development in the surrounding area should force solutions to some of these issues.
“You assembled a great group of people here and you’re doing fantastic business,” said Daley, “and for the infrastructure to be your downfall would be unfortunate.”
Mark Haney is a staff writer for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org