Austin Engineering USA, formerly Westech, in Mills is off Wyoming Boulevard near Fort Caspar. (Rhonda Schulte, Oil City News)

MILLS, Wyo. — If Austin Engineering expands with the help of a $20 million state business grant and loan package awarded to the City of Mills, the company says the major rebuild and expansion will add 50 jobs to 111 already at its manufacturing plant in Mills. 

Those jobs will pay 83% above Natrona County’s median wage, and will result in higher capital expenditures and tax revenue, according to a recent Wyoming Business Council Project Smile funding recommendation to the State Loan and Investment Board.

Expected to cost an estimated $27.4 million, Project Smile will involve construction of a 69,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and 15,000-square-foot paint and blast building off Austin’s existing manufacturing facility of mine-specific truck bodies at 415 1st St., Mills.

Planned location of new manufacturing and paint and blast facilities at Austin Engineering in Mills.

Expansion by 84,000 square feet will significantly increase the manufacturing capacity for Austin Engineering’s customized mining haul truck bodies primarily for the United States and Canada markets. It will also be capable of manufacturing other product lines such as mining buckets, water tanks and tyre handlers.

The project requires final approval from the Wyoming attorney general and the Austin Engineering CEO and board. Architectural designs and building permits are still needed as well. 

“We’re really excited,” said Johnny Greer, Austin Engineering North America general manager.

He said construction could start sometime in the second quarter of 2024.

“We’d love to have the building open and ready to go in less than two years,” Greer said. “We anticipate construction to take a good year. It could be less, it could be more, from start to finish.”

Describing the old buildings in use now as suboptimal for manufacturing in today’s world, Greer said a new facility would provide a much more efficient layout for manufacturing.

On Oct. 5, the State Loan and Investment Board, made up of Wyoming’s top elected officials, awarded the City of Mills a $15 million grant and $5 million low-interest loan for Project Smile. The Business Ready Community funding is providing 55% total eligible project costs with a 45% local match, according to the Wyoming Business Council, which recommended the SLIB approve the application.  

Using the WBC state funds, the City of Mill intends to build the facility to Austin’s requirements and lease it to the company. After five years, the company will have the option to buy the land and building, according to the WBC.

For its part, Austin is expected to donate land for the new facility to the City of Mills. In addition, the company will give about 25 acres to Mills for future community development projects, including expanded parking for First Street Park. The development is expected to generate revenue for the City of Mills for other community development projects, according to the WBC. 

The land match is valued at $340,500.

Formerly Westech, Austin Engineering is a long-time business in the community that owns about 47 acres containing a manufacturing facility, office buildings, parking lot and a storage yard. A portion of the North Platte River Trail system and access to the North Platte River are within 22 of those acres, which are surrounded by dense trees and underbrush, according to the WBC project document.

Greer explained the Project Smile name.

“The shape of the property going to the City of Mills is in shape of a smile,” he said. “It looks visually like a smile.”

Property to be donated to the City of Mills outlined in red.

The company is also expected to contribute $7.06 million in cash toward the $27.4 million project.

Of the 50 new jobs projected after expansion, 40 will be skilled labor and 10 will be administrative. The company is expected to pay an average wage at year five of $37.22 per hour with a comprehensive benefits package. Natrona County’s median wage is $20.35 an hour, according to the WBC document. 

In the form of economic impact, the WBC expects to recoup the $15 million grant in 6.1 years. One concern noted in the business council’s analysis is the time to recoup state funds exceeds five years.

Revenue will be recaptured via lease payments to the City of Mills. The Business Ready Community program will recapture 25% of the net proceeds, along with the loan and interest repayments from the city. Mills will recapture the remaining 75%, along with 25 acres of donated land. Mills will reinvest its recaptured funds in the community with other economic development projects as they are presented, states the WBC document.

Westech, created in Laramie in 1938, moved to Mills in 1940. The fabrication shop was built in the 1950s, and additions were added in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s. In 2007, the company, purchased by Austin Engineering, became part of a worldwide operation with headquarters in Perth, Australia. Engineering centers are located in Australia and North America and manufacturing sites are in Australia, North America, Indonesia and South America. 

In 2017 Mills created the Uniquely Mills comprehensive plan that reviewed the community’s existing conditions, identified building blocks for growth and outlined implementation strategies. Mills has created an economic development program, has worked with local businesses on growth strategies and is finalizing a riverfront restoration project.

“The community has been actively progressing through their comprehensive plan, and this project will further their goals and support their economic development efforts,” the WBC wrote in its staff analysis of Project Smile.

Read the complete City of Mills Project Smile Wyoming Business Council Business Ready Community Grant and Loan Program details here: