Minnesota’s Brick Industry Hits the Wall

By: Brian Johnson September 6, 2016

Fort Worth, Texas-based Acme Brick is closing this brickyard in Springfield, Minnesota. The brickyard has been a major employer in the city for 100 years. (Submitted photo: Bergerson Photography)

Fort Worth, Texas-based Acme Brick is closing this brickyard in Springfield, Minnesota. The brickyard has been a major employer in the city for 100 years. (Submitted photo: Bergerson Photography)

Acme Brick’s decision to close its Springfield, Minnesota, brickyard marks the end of an era for brick-making in Minnesota.

The facility, which occupies a 15-acre site at 801 East Rock St., was the last operating brick plant in Minnesota and had been functioning for more than a century, going back to its days as the Ochs Brick Co. operation.

But with demand for brick products drying up in Minnesota, Fort Worth, Texas-based Acme suspended brickmaking at the Springfield plant in fall 2014. Acme said earlier this year that it was closing the operation permanently, though a dozen or so people will continue to sell existing inventory out of that plant over the short term – perhaps 12 to 16 months.

Tim Dougherty, Acme’s manager of the local operation, didn’t take it personally when company brass made the decision.

“The brick market here has kind of gone away,” Dougherty said in an interview. “Acme doesn’t see this as a strong enough brick market to stay in business here. … As much as it pains me to say this, I have to agree with Acme’s decision.”

Acme Brick has left its mark on a diverse mix of buildings in Minnesota, including the University of Minnesota’s Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis, which was renovated inside and out a few years back with help from bricks that came from the Springfield plant.

Acme bricks were used to help build the Folkestone at the Promenade senior living community in Wayzata. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Acme bricks were used to help build the Folkestone at the Promenade senior living community in Wayzata. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Acme bricks also contributed to the Folkestone at the Promenade senior living community in Wayzata, the new Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters in north Minneapolis, and a police station and city hall in Prior Lake.

Even so, brick sales in Minnesota have plummeted from 40 million bricks sold in 2006 to about 15 million today, according to the Brick Industry Association. The 2008 recession struck a big blow, but industry experts cite other factors as well.

Restoration work has been steady. But on the construction side, brick has lost market share during the years to metal panels, precast concrete and other products that are seen as cheaper and more compatible with speedy construction, Dougherty said.

Dougherty said that’s especially the case in residential construction.

“Primarily, residential homes [in Minnesota] have gone away from brick and now they don’t even use much stone anymore,” Dougherty said, adding that “commercial alone is not enough to sustain a plant” in Minnesota.

Gary Botzek, executive director of the Minnesota Concrete & Masonry Contractors Association, said there has been a lot of consolidation in the ready-mix, sand, gravel and block, and brick industries and that it’s tough for family businesses to compete.

Materials are being transported to job sites from plants farther away, which has “led to the demise of some companies,” he said.

“It’s like you contact Amazon and they will find a product for you. It’s almost that way with building materials, too,” Botzek said.

The Springfield plant typifies the industry’s struggles – and the effects a plant closing can have on a small town with a population of about 2,100 residents. The city is in the southern part of the state.

Matt Skaret, Springfield’s city manager and Economic Development Agency director, said the plant “has been a mainstay in the community” for a century. A lot of buildings in town were made of materials from the local brickyard and it was a major employer, he said.

“There has been a brickyard there in one fashion or another since 1916. … It’s right on the railroad; a perfect place for a brickyard,” Skaret added.

As many as 80 people worked at the plant during its heyday, Skaret said.

“They were going fairly strong before the recession and they kept [the plant] up to date for the most part, keeping the facilities modern,” Skaret said.

Things were looking up just 15 years ago. In 2001, the Springfield plant underwent a $9 million expansion, which doubled the plant’s capacity to 60 million bricks per year, Acme said in a 2008 press release.

Acme Brick Co. acquired the plant in 2008, when it became known as the “Acme-Ochs” plant.

Mark Merchant, a regional sales manager for Acme, said the post-recession slowdown in the homebuilding market, competition from other building materials, and other market factors stacked the deck against the Springfield plant.

“It’s simply market conditions,” he said.

The soft market allowed Acme to run the plant only about eight months out of the year, he said. “That really wasn’t working. It’s really difficult to try to run a brick plant intermittently.”

The plant, which includes 105,540 square feet of building space on 15.36 acres along County Road 3 and the Cottonwood River, is for sale with an asking price of $1.47 million.

Skaret said the city is doing what it can to help market the property because “with those buildings sitting empty, that is a large loss of tax base.”

“We have reached out to other brick companies … and so far they have not shown any interest in expanding or taking over any of the Springfield operations,” he said.

For his part, Dougherty said he’s retiring after a career that includes 25 years of active membership in the Minnesota Concrete & Masonry Contractors Association. In a recent association newsletter, he urged his former competitors to get involved.

“We are faced with numerous challenges every day and our market share will continue to erode unless we mount an organized attack,” he wrote. “I encourage every company to get more involved, especially my competitors in the brick industry.”