Bonner buyer: Scott Cooney says he wants to be part of community's history
Scott Cooney stands on a bluff above West Riverside, Bonner and the Blackfoot River last week. The Missoula businessman will soon own much of Bonner, having bought the houses near the Stimson Lumber Co. mill and the old log yard near West Riverside from Stimson.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Scott Cooney drives you to the top of his proposed subdivision in the west Rattlesnake and professes his love.

He followed this same path on bikes with his two girls over the weekend, up to the Moon-Randolph Homestead to press cider and meet Chloe the goat.

"My youngest daughter is Chloe, so she got a kick out of that," he says.

Later, the three of them played in piles of leaves at Cooney's boyhood home, the one across the creek in which his parents still live.

"It's just fantastic to be able to have that," he tells you. "That's one of the reasons I love living up here. I have a hard time leaving it. I've tried in the past and always come back to it."

But he adds, "There are times I get frustrated with the attitudes of people in the Rattlesnake, that it's this holier-than-thou place."

Cooney is rich and he's a developer - strike two and a foul tip in a lot of people's minds.

If he's frustrated with his neighbors, some of them are at least puzzled by Cooney.

"He's a loner as far as I'm concerned, and I think you'll find any other neighbors say pretty much the same thing," says Jeff Herman, whose back fence abuts Cooney's. "But you know, he's friendly enough. He waves at you. And one thing I really like: He comes and plows our street in the winter on his own, which is very neighborly."

"We've got a great relationship. He's a good guy," says Dr. Loren Rogers, who "yaks across the fence" with Cooney. "He may be an enigma to you, but Scott's pretty transparent. He's willing to talk about anything."

Still, Cooney's the guy who has a gated drive at the end of a dead-end street alongside Rattlesnake Creek. He is the one whose Duncan Meadows subdivision is considered by some as yet another assault on the viewshed of a ridge above the valley that is indeed hallowed ground.

And he's the guy who just bought Bonner.

Technically, the deal's not done. Cooney closes with Stimson Lumber Co. this week for an undisclosed price.

When the papers are signed, he will be the proud and happy owner of one of Montana's few remaining company towns. All 42 homes he's buying in Bonner, as well as the building that houses the Bonner post office and Gateway Credit Union, were owned by the companies that owned the lumber mill in Bonner since the first log was cut in 1886.

Cooney will also take over a 133-acre former log yard and mountainside on the other side of the Blackfoot River in West Riverside. With Grant Lincoln, one of his many business partners, he plans to create some kind of development there.

He's also got his eye on Stimson's vast acreage next to its current milling operation, which includes a former log yard and the plywood plant that shut down in July.

"It's a financial environmental risk to me," Cooney acknowledges. "But it's one I have to take if I'm going to do the deal."

High on his to-do list is to have the whole town listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He says he received encouraging words a few days ago that moving condemned houses from the east side of Bonner to the west would probably not hurt the chances of qualifying.

He was excited too, he says, to learn that there's such a thing as a National Historic Industrial District, something for which Stimson's 121-year-old mill site would seem a shoo-in.

"It brings tears to my eyes when I start reading the history of that area," Cooney adds. "This is the opportunity of a lifetime for me, to be a part of that history, and why I've been given this is beyond me. But, I mean, I lie awake at night thinking about it."

Like many in the Rattlesnake, folks in Bonner and Milltown aren't sure what to make of Cooney.

Most had never heard of him before the sale became public on Sept. 22, though Cooney has lived in Missoula for all but a couple of the last 33 years.

He was 13 when Dr. Gary and Kathy Cooney moved their three boys to Missoula and Gary started a neurology practice. He graduated from Hellgate High School in 1978 and has based a series of business enterprises in the area virtually ever since.

Mike Kustudia and Gary Matson of the Milltown Redevelopment Working Group met informally with Cooney last week about his plans for Bonner.

"It went well," Kustudia says. "The work that the working group is doing seems like it might dovetail with what he's got planned. And I think it's terrific, his effort to save some of those old houses out there."

That said, Kustudia and others acknowledge it's too soon to tell where Cooney fits in as the community plans for life after the Milltown Dam, which is due for demolition next year.

"I'm kind of a suspicious guy by nature, so I always wonder what's really going on," says Jeff Patterson, who serves on the land-use committee of the Bonner Community Council. "But I hope for the best for the community."

Cooney is aware of the suspicions. He says the community will have a large say in what he does with his properties, and points to the working group's still-emerging concept of a state park at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers.

Kustudia says part of the park will be a gateway area abutting Cooney's 133 acres west of the Blackfoot. A "high-end" version of the gateway might include a plaza and community center.

"That seems like it would mesh with what he's doing, not knowing precisely what he has planned," says Kustudia.

Cooney says he doesn't have any precise plans yet.

"This isn't anything I came up with," he says. "This is something the working group is coming up with. They already have the vision. All I want to do is add a little color to their vision.

"If I can add a little fuel to the economic engine out there, great. That's what I want to do. But it's a community-wide effort that everybody's come forward and put their thumbprint on."

Cooney launched a Web site a couple of weeks ago, On it, he tries to address the suspicions he's heard, including the most prevalent one:

Q. Is Washington Corp. involved?

A. Washington Corp. is NOT involved with this.

Cooney, 46, will be hard-pressed to escape the suspicion he's propped up by Missoula billionaire Dennis Washington.

"That's been a rumor that's kind of haunted me, that I was Denny's son-in-law," he says. "Denny doesn't have a daughter that I know of. That would be a great, easy way to do it, for sure."

The notion of a Cooney-Washington tie didn't come out of the blue. Washington and his associates undeniably opened doors for Cooney's rise in the industrial and real estate world, and Cooney often cites the things Dennis Washington taught him.

"He was the one who kind of mentored me along, as well as Bill Brodsky (former president of Montana Rail Link)," Cooney says.

Still, he doesn't view himself as a budding Dennis Washington. He says he used to work 70 or 80 hours a week, leaving no time for family or relationships. That changed after a near-fatal one-car rollover near Clinton in 1991.

"I do what I love, but I don't know that I'm going to make the sacrifices that Dennis made in committing that kind of time to those endeavors," he says. "I value my children and my family and friends. I need to put more time into those relationships.

"I certainly appreciate the opportunities (Washington gave him), but I don't have a need for jets and yachts."

Cooney's mother Kathy and Washington's wife Phyllis were partners in PJ's Interiors, an interior decorating service. The families were next-door neighbors in the Rattlesnake, and Bevan, the youngest of three Cooney brothers, was a running buddy of Kevin Washington growing up.

"Holy terrors," said Scott Cooney, who is 11 years Bevan's senior and 11 months older than brother Rob Cooney, who's in the construction business in Hamilton.

Bevan Cooney and Kevin Washington are still close friends in Los Angeles. Bevan's in real estate and owns The Viper Room, a hangout for Hollywood stars on the Sunset Strip that was previously owned by Johnny Depp. It became renowned almost from the start as the site where actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose in 1993.

"Yeah, I went in there one night and saw the stars, Tom Cruise and a bunch of that group," Scott Cooney says. "I'm old and that's not my type of thing. I went to the Elton John concert and I'd like to go to the James Taylor concert. I listen to the '70s station (on the radio). That's more my speed."

A year out of high school, Cooney launched his career as a house painter in Missoula. He bought the business, Rainglow Painting, the following year and dropped out of school at the University of Montana when it took off. He says he had as many as 25 painters working for him at one point, most of them his age or older.

Soon Cooney took his business on the road, painting heavy equipment for a nationwide auction company, then branching into hydroelectric facilities such as Kerr Dam for Montana Power Co.

"That's when we met up with Denny. We ended up crossing one of his union lines at Equipco out on Expressway and started painting for him during the strike at Equipco in about 1983," Cooney says.

He crossed another picket line to paint Washington-Grizzly Stadium before it opened in 1986. When Washington bought the Berkeley Pit, he hired Cooney to bring his painters to Butte to paint his 175-ton rigs in the open pit mine.

Next came another Washington enterprise, Montana Rail Link, for which Cooney and Rainglow secretly painted the "groundbreaking cars" in MRL's colors inside the Western Trade Center building off North Reserve Street.

His connections with the rail line led to more opportunities.

"I've always looked at our work as just labor services," he says. "Those (railroad) cars are cleaned on a daily basis, unbeknownst to most people. It's like renting a rental car, you expect to get it clean."

So Rainglow and Cooney waded into the industrial cleaning business, bringing "some efficiencies to that operation," Cooney says. Burlington Northern's costs had been 10 times what MRL's were to get the cars clean.

"That was something Denny always told me: That's what I needed to do is be the lowest-cost provider of my goods or services," says Cooney. "And that's stuck with me today. There's no question that's a big part of business."

Frequent train derailments in MRL's early years led to another need that Cooney jumped into. He contracted to clean up the spilled cargo and formed a splinter company, Rocky Road Services. Around the turn of the century, that business lost its cleanup contracts to a national company.

"We all of a sudden have all this equipment on hand and what are we going to do with it?" Cooney says. "So we turned to demolition. The next thing I know, all the lumber mills are coming down, so we're tearing down every lumber mill in the Northwest."

It was through his new company, Industrial Salvage and Demolition, that Cooney hooked up with Jeff Webber, vice president of Stimson Lumber Co., which closed the mill in Libby in 2002. Webber once lived in one of the company houses in Bonner when he worked for Champion International Corp.

"For many years, I'd been asking Jeff for that mill site in Bonner," says Cooney. "I just really wanted to have it. Finally we're going to get it."

Cooney agrees it's ironic that a demolition company hired by Stimson to tear down houses in Bonner is instead buying the homes and vowing to preserve them.

"I was trying to figure that all out, how people were going to view this. I'm definitely a preservationist and a conservationist," he says. "That's ironic that I've really had those values and hold them highly when I'm involved in an industrial background."

So what does Cooney do for money these days?

"I'm a scrapper by trade," he says. "I do demolition. I do the real estate as a hobby, and I love it. It's definitely a sideline business, but it's turned out to require all my time."

Cooney's first completed residential subdivision was in Clinton several years ago. He says a 24-lot development of affordable homes near Alberton is filled. Contractors are digging roads and sewers near St. Regis this week, and another there is in the engineering phase.

He has his hand in other housing projects at Fish Creek and Huson, up the Bitterroot, one on either side of lower Grant Creek, and two in the Rattlesnake - 12 in all, in various stages of development. Bonner makes 13.

That's not counting the 13-acre Expressway Business Park that's in the works west of North Reserve Street. It'll offer space for combined retail, office and light industrial, replete with warehouses, loading docks next to the MRL line, a day-care and a town center.

Another thing Washington taught Scott Cooney: In business, it's important to have a team behind you, and that team includes a good accountant, a good banker and a good attorney.

"It's teamwork that does it all. Everything I do, I can't say I'm doing it. It's really a team effort," says Cooney.

He has investment partners in every project - his parents are involved in one, he says. "And I've had the support of some great bankers like Bill Bouchee and Hal Frazer."

At times, yes, it can all seem overwhelming. Divorced, Cooney gets daughters Kylie and Chloe half the time and he says he wants to spend all of that time with them.

Cooney suffers from traumatic arthritis in virtually every joint in his body, the results of the 1991 highway accident. It rendered him to a wheelchair off and on for two years, he says, and he still can't do many of the things he used to love: mountain climbing, backcountry camping trips or even golfing comfortably. He has become an avid mountain biker. Pedaling a bike, he says, takes the pressure off the soles of his feet - which are in constant pain.

Cooney also suffered brain damage in the wreck.

"I live by my Palm Pilot. I live by writing everything down. I have to," he says.

Still, he says he has to have a dozen balls in the air or he's not happy.

"Sometimes if you don't have 12 up there, keeping them going, then it doesn't work, and then I would be without a project," Cooney says. "Some of them never come to fruition. There's another dozen I have that I've been working on that might never happen.

"It's unfortunate right now that most of these projects are hitting right on. I'm going, 'Hmm, this isn't what I like.' It puts some financial constraints on me, some time constraints. I get my kids 50 percent of the time, and when I get them, I try to shut everything else down."

His girls are a welcome respite to what Cooney refers to as the "highly contentious" Duncan Meadows subdivision, which a group of residents has organized to stop, and in Bonner, where factions battle each other even though it seems to Cooney they all want the same thing.

"I used to try to please everybody, and it's frustrating because you can't," he says. "I try to live my life and treat people how I want to be treated. And I think we have that responsibility to do that.

"It's like in Bonner. I'd like to let everybody know what we need to do is like something I'd tell my 7-year-old. 'Let's learn to play with each other. Let's play nice.' "

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