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Owner expects new life for former Duro Bag factory

Tom Elbert is optimistic about finding a tenant or tenants for the Duro Bag factory he purchased a couple of months ago for $3.15 million. The rural New Richmond investor has experience managing business incubators.

The 147,000-square-foot factory on Baer Road in the town of Hudson won't be empty much longer if owner Tom Elbert's plans come to fruition.

Duro Bag Manufacturing Co. pulled out of the facility two years ago and moved the operation to a plant in Florence, Ky. More than 60 jobs were lost at the Hudson factory that opened in 1976.

Now Elbert is hoping to bring in a new manufacturer that would employ twice as many people as the company that left. The deal, he said, hinges on whether the prospective tenant can come to an agreement with the state of Wisconsin on an incentive package.

Elbert declined to name the manufacturer, but said he's optimistic that an announcement will be made in the coming weeks.

The 49-year-old rural New Richmond investor and property manager bought the Duro Bag facility two months ago for $3.15 million.

The plant sits on 72 acres, with room for more industrial development, according to Elbert. It is served by a railroad spur line.

Incubator experience

Elbert has experience finding tenants for vacant industrial properties.

When Kolpak and UFE Inc. left River Falls a few years ago, he bought the facilities and brought in new businesses.

"I was able to tenant it up and help the companies come in - and they grew," Elbert said. "Now, between the two buildings, we've got 150 to 200 people working."

"I'm assuming this will fill up in a very short period of time with another 120 jobs," he said of the Duro Bag plant.

A variety of businesses occupy his River Falls facilities, including a heavy machinery manufacturer, a solar energy company, a seed company, a law firm and an electrician.

In early 2011, Elbert and partners bought the 260,000-square-foot Crestliner boat factory in Little Falls, Minn. About 15 tenants occupy that facility, which was renamed the Little Falls Manufacturing Development Center.

Crestliner stayed in 31,000 square feet of the industrial site. Several of the other tenants are metal manufacturing companies.

The state of Minnesota has a workforce center in the facility that helps job seekers find employment and businesses find workers.

The business incubator also provides forklifts, Internet and other services for the tenants.

Elbert sometimes provides the last amount of financing that a startup company needs to move into one of his facilities.

He purchased his first large facility - a mini-storage and commercial complex in St. Anthony, Minn. - in 2004.

His father's idea

Elbert credits his father, Thomas E. Elbert Sr., for the idea of starting business incubators.

The senior Elbert was a rocket scientist who dreamed of providing facilities and apparatus for inventors to use.

"I just buy the big buildings and help people start their manufacturing, or whatever else they do," the younger Elbert said.

Thomas Sr. and a partner, Frank Archibald, built the first Titan II guidance system for rockets used in the Gemini Space Program in the 1960s and in intercontinental ballistic missiles in the 1980s. He died in 2011 at the age of 84.

The younger Elbert was born in Milwaukee and grew up in Ringo, a small community near Wausau. He attended D.C. Everest High School at Schofield and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in economics and math from the University of Minnesota - Duluth.

After teaching economics at the former North Central Technical College in Wausau for a year, he took a job as a road construction engineer. After that, he went into the paper industry, working for three companies in succession.

Nowadays, property management is his full-time occupation. Elbert also owns apartment buildings and mini-storage complexes, and is a partner in properties in distant states.

He and his wife, Kathleen, moved to White Bear Lake, Minn., after five years in Wausau. Seven years ago, they settled in the town of Erin Prairie, southeast of New Richmond.

The Elberts met while students at UMD. She is an officer for First State Bank and Trust at its new Hudson location on Second Street.

They have two sons, ages 26 and 23. The oldest, Tommy, is a college student and has a business prepping houses for resale. John is in the Army. He has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Factory draws interest

Elbert is confident his investment in the Duro Bag facility will pay off even if the deal with the current prospect falls through.

"I've actually had a number of people look at this space," he said, including another company that was interested in occupying the entire facility.

If the prospect succeeds in obtaining the financing it needs, the plant will undergo major renovations. The concrete floors will be ground smooth and sealed, air-conditioning and suspended ceilings will be installed, and the exterior will go "from ugly to nice," according to Elbert.

He would recoup the expense of the renovations through a lease and sales agreement. The prospect would purchase the facility after a few years.

Elbert enjoys helping startup and small companies succeed by providing them with affordable space.

"I think I've been part of their growth by what I do for them," he said.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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