Foundry that cast Great Seal for N.D. Capitol calls it quits
BISMARCK - Long after Metal Arts Inc. has filled its last order, the signs and plaques it makes from aluminum and bronze will endure, perhaps nowhere more prominently than inside the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck. Against a wall of black marbl...
BISMARCK – Long after Metal Arts Inc. has filled its last order, the signs and plaques it makes from aluminum and bronze will endure, perhaps nowhere more prominently than inside the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck.
Against a wall of black marble in the Capitol’s Memorial Hall hangs a 440-pound, 6-foot-diameter bronze plaque of the Great Seal of North Dakota, created by Mandan-based Metal Arts and dedicated in 2006.
“It was a big project, but it was an interesting project, and it was one of those that was more fun than the rest,” Bill Helbling said.
Helbling is part-owner and co-manager of L&H Manufacturing Co., the family-owned business that bought Metal Arts Inc. in 1968 and moved it from Milwaukee to Mandan.
He said difficulty finding workers in North Dakota’s tight labor market – the state had the lowest seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in the nation in September, at 2.8 percent – and changes in the sign industry both factored into the decision to fold Metal Arts.
The business has stopped taking orders and will cease to exist after it completes its last few jobs, including the entrance sign for the recently remodeled Capitol Café.
Metal Arts started 75 years ago as a small foundry and finishing factory in Milwaukee, casting aluminum letters and seals for the U.S. Postal Service, according to its website. The firm soon expanded to bronze plaques and lettering for businesses, government and organizations, a business model that continued after L&H Manufacturing purchased it.
As plastic signs gained market share as a cheaper and faster alternative to metal, government agencies and schools accounted for a larger percentage of Metal Arts’ jobs, Helbling said.
“The longevity of it was of bigger concern to them than the initial cost,” he said, noting the business also did a lot of work for Bismarck State College and the University of Mary.
Pictures on the company’s website feature samples of its craftsmanship: the cast-aluminum lettering on the MDU Resources Group sign in north Bismarck, the water jet-cut aluminum lettering with mirror finish at Schumacher Diamond Cutters & Jewelers in south Bismarck, a bronze plaque for Bemidji (Minn.) High School and a 34-inch-diameter bronze plaque of the Great Seal of Minnesota.
“We would do a lot of those state seals on a pretty regular basis for all around the country,” Helbling said.
North Dakota Secretary of State Al Jaeger fondly recalled visiting Metal Arts to watch the casting of the Great Seal of North Dakota. He said it’s sad to see the business fold.
“There’s a history there,” he said. “There’s a tremendous history.”
Metal Arts had as many as 40 employees at one time, according to its website. It’s been less in recent years, Helbling said, declining to disclose exact employment figures.
He said the majority of Metal Arts’ employees will go to work for L&H Manufacturing, which makes branding irons. Two employees will be laid off.
“That was part of our consideration,” he said. “The impact to our employees will be pretty minute.”
The struggle to find workers wasn’t the determining factor in closing Metal Arts, “but it was definitely part of it,” he said.
“Trying to find decent help is pretty tough, and to not have to pay an arm and a leg for them,” he said.
Helbling said L&H Manufacturing will still have the personnel and equipment necessary to do aluminum and bronze casting if a special project comes up, “but the whole competitive side of it is going away.”
The next-closest foundry with similar capabilities is A.R.K. Ramos in Oklahoma City, he said.
“There used to be quite a number of them,” he said. “But it’s down to probably a handful.”