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Insitu expansion in high gear

Bingen won't change its name to Binsitu

First of all, there is no truth to the rumor that the Bingen City Council is considering changing the name of the city of Bingen to "Binsitu," or that the White Salmon City Council is planning to switch the name of the city of White Salmon to "Insitu Salmon."

However, there are unmistakable alterations to the look of both Bingen and White Salmon since business at The Insitu Group, Inc. -- which designs and builds miniature robotic aircraft for a variety of military and commercial uses -- literally took off in the past few years.

To get an idea of the changes Insitu's dramatic expansion has brought to the community, consider the Park Center building in White Salmon. It looks pretty much the same as always from the outside, but 13,000 square feet of the interior has been transformed since Insitu leased the building from the White Salmon Valley School District a few months ago.

Steve Nordlund, Insitu's vice president for business development, pointed out that Insitu is putting up $350,000 to upgrade the Park Center. The building improvements are coming at no cost to the school district.

"Our philosophy is not to put any burden on the school," Nordlund said. "A lot of us have kids in the school system or will have kids in the system, and we're helping to support the school district's objectives. We want to keep the school system the best it can be."

Insitu is renovating the Park Center to create software development labs and an efficient work space for the team. The remodeling work is expected to be completed sometime in August, and then 30-35 employees will begin working at the building.

"When you're making robotic systems, the heart of robotics is software," Nordlund explained. "Insitu is 60-80 percent a software company because we're so much driven by software."

Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel took note of the loss of the Park Center facility as a meeting hall and as a place for school plays and other performing arts events.

"All the more reason we need a community center in Bingen," Prigel commented.

According to Nordlund, the company's expansion is still under way, and the Park Center is not the only local building being remodeled because Insitu needs more space.

Insitu now has two buildings totaling about 30,000 square feet at the Port of Klickitat's industrial park at Bingen Point, and is constructing a third building that will provide another 18,000 square feet.

Insitu will also soon be moving into the old Mont Elise Winery building in Bingen, as well as the former Mansfield's Hardware & Furniture store at 115 W. Steuben, and Cabal, an ex-windsurfing shop right across the street.

The former winery facility will be used for administrative/executive offices, while the furniture store has become the company's flight operations center. The surfboarding shop is being used for operations support/customer support personnel.

Mayor Prigel said that despite minor problems such as the increased parking congestion in town, Insitu's success has had a positive impact.

"Insitu employs a lot of people and is spreading a lot of money around town in payroll and tenant improvements," Prigel said. "That's a good thing. It's a big boost to the local economy."

In White Salmon, in addition to the Park Center, Insitu has taken over the entire building that once housed the Columbia River Gorge Commission offices. That building, at 288 E. Jewett, holds Insitu's business offices.

In all, the innovative and ever-expanding company has about 94,000 square feet of space in its seven locations, and is approaching 200 employees.

Mayor Roger Holen was enthusiastic about the impact the company is having on White Salmon.

"It's a clean industry, it's high tech,and it's a growing industry," Holen said. "I've met some of the Insitu people who have joined Rotary. They're young, energetic, dynamic people, and they obviously want to become part of the community. And more kids coming into the local school system means Dale Palmer will have more money coming into the schools. There is very much a cascade effect."

Nordlund pointed out that one of the issues facing Insitu is finding a facility that allows the company to get all its employees in one room for staff meetings.

A problem like that is understandable for a company that enjoyed 300 percent growth last year, and is not too far off that pace this year.

"We're seeing Insitu signs hanging out in front of a lot of buildings as a result of that growth," Nordlund commented. "We won't do 300 percent this year. It's hard to sustain that type of growth, but we expect 180-200 percent growth year to year. We're expanding into different facilities, and trying to be good neighbors. How do we keep the small company culture when we've grown to a couple hundred people? That's a challenge."

The new facilities being readied for Insitu should be enough for the company -- for now.

"This will keep us going for a three-to-five year period," Nordlund said. "We hope to centralize on a campus at some point, but haven't put that master plan together yet."

With the tremendous growth and a shortage of industrial property in the area, might Insitu have to look to relocate out of the Bingen-White Salmon area in the future?

Nordlund said he didn't believe that would happen.

"A couple things make us feel this is home," he said. "We have a tremendous amount of talent from all areas of the country, and people like the quality of life here. We need good access to a metropolitan area and an airport, and we have that with I-84. Also, our employees have to have high speed Internet access, and we're impressed with how `wired' this area is. Nobody on the management team wants to leave, including me. I like raising my kids here."

Nordlund added that what happens in the communities of Bingen and White Salmon is critical to Insitu.

"We pay close attention to local issues," he said. "The water issue is a concern to us, and we're hoping housing prices will turn back down."

Holen also cited housing and water as two of the most serious issues facing the White Salmon community.

"Our big concern is the ability to find adequate housing for all the people Insitu is bringing in -- and then it's back to the water problem," Holen commented. "Hopefully we can resolve that soon."

Prigel said he was concerned that the company was reliant on contracts that could possibly dry up in the future.

"Insitu is bringing money and business into the community, but the problem is, I'm a bit concerned about relying on any one industry," he explained. "There is the potential to give us some negative impacts if they pack up and leave."

Nordlund said he doesn't see that happening. He pointed out that as the company continues to evolve and expand, its customer base is undergoing a transformation as well.

"The Navy and the Marine Corps are our primary customers," Nordlund explained. "The Marine Corps just signed us up again, and we're having conversations with the Air Force as well. We're also close to a deal with the Australian army."

But Nordlund stressed that there are many applications for Insitu's technology beyond military uses.

"We're trying to swing it back to the civilian side," Nordlund said.

For example, there is great promise in using unmanned aircraft for firefighting.

"When there are firefighters on the ground with a fire moving rapidly, they can get trapped," he explained. "We can show them the overhead view, and where the hot spots are."

Other uses being developed include monitoring of pipelines, border surveillance, and even animal tracking.

"That starts to open up civilian uses," Nordlund said. "Our desire has been to have a good balance between force protection and civilian applications."

Yet for now at least, the military contracts provide most of Insitu's business momentum. It's a critical task, because the way Insitu does its job can literally be the difference between life and death.

"Our mission is to protect 18-22 year-olds on the front line," Nordlund explained. "They are in harm's way and we're out there trying to protect them. Here in little Bingen-White Salmon, we're developing technology that is used to save kids' lives around the world."


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