Several businesses at the former Bonner mill site are experiencing rapid growth, have expansion plans or are simply trying to keep up with the busiest time in their history.
For example, Justin Bruce, the COO of Coaster Pedicab, said his company may need to add 5,000 square feet of manufacturing space and add employees in the near future if a couple potential business deals pan out.
He can’t make any specific announcements just yet, but his company is very far along in talks to partner with at least two multinational corporations. One company, United Parcel Service, is using a prototype cargo bike built by Coaster Pedicab in a pilot program to see if they want more. The other large company, which Bruce did not name, is looking at purchasing custom-built bikes specifically for transporting cold beverages.
Coaster Pedicab employees engineer, design and fabricate the custom bikes on site, and they ship them all over the world.
“We’re just talking with their attorneys to find out when we can make an announcement,” Bruce told Missoula County commissioner Jean Curtiss. Curtiss was touring several businesses at the Bonner site Monday to chat with representatives about their future plans, challenges and the current economic climate.
Curtiss is in the midst of a re-election campaign, and is facing University of Montana lecturer and farmer Josh Slotnick in the Democratic primary in June.
“We’re hoping to expand,” Bruce said. “I think these companies are finding that our quality is superior.”
The topic of potential tariffs on imported steel and aluminum came up at both Coaster Pedicab and Alcom, a company next door that employs 160 people in a 100,000-square-foot warehouse and uses aluminum to build custom horse trailers and cargo trailers.
President Donald Trump has formally ordered a 25 percent tariff on steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports, with some exemptions for Canada and Mexico.
Bruce said that most of their aluminum comes from U.S. manufacturers, but he is concerned that higher steel prices could affect his company’s bottom line. He agreed with Alcom plant manager Ron Neibauer that it’s too early to tell how the tariffs will affect business.
Alcom uses about 80,000 pounds of aluminum per week to make roughly 25 trailers per day in a customized assembly-line fashion. Neibauer said there’s no question that the company would have to pay much more for aluminum when the tariffs are enacted, but he’s not ready to say whether it would affect his business in a good or bad way.
“Demand is high,” Neibauer said. “People are willing to pay more, but how much more is a question. Our trailers would become less affordable, so there’s a threshold. If the tariffs are implemented, we’ll change our prices accordingly, but it’s really too early to tell whether it will be good or bad.”
Alcom is the second-largest aluminum trailer manufacturer in the nation, and they can create high-end trailers, complete with bathrooms, kitchenettes and heaters, that sell for upwards of $20,000.
Neibauer said the company starts its employees at $12 to $13 per hour with the opportunity to get on-the-job training and earn more. They work with a variety of other local companies for other aspects of their business, including shipping and propane. The high cost of shipping goods from Montana is a burden on the business, he said, echoing what Bruce from Coaster Pedicab said.
Montana’s relatively remote location makes shipping products to the West and East Coast, where most of their customers are located, expensive. The companies often have to employ local shipping brokerages to find trucks that have dropped off loads here so that they can ship something out.
“But we love being here in Missoula,” Bruce said. “We’ve found great employees being here and the city and the county have been really supportive of our efforts.”
Two other nearby businesses are also expanding. Nick Checota, the owner of Logjam Presents, said he expects to double the number of concert tickets he sells at the Kettlehouse Amphitheater to roughly 65,000 this year, with about 20 percent of those sales coming from out-of-state markets like Salt Lake City and surprisingly, Texas.
“The new direct flights from Texas to Missoula will be huge for us,” he said. “We sell a lot of tickets to the amphitheater to people from Texas.”
Kettlehouse Brewing Company has also announced plans to open a new taproom this summer at its new brewery at the Bonner mill site, next door to the amphitheater, giving residents and tourists another place to drink local craft beer and enjoy the scenery of the Blackfoot River.
Checota said this spring, he's hired crews to build an expanded food-service building at the amphitheater, and environmental consultants will be planting more native plants as restoration of the riverbank continues. He also recently announced a new initiative to raise between $100,000 and $125,000 to help Trout Unlimited restore and protect the Blackfoot River watershed by donating a portion of ticket, beer and merchandise sales. He said 97 percent of waste at the amphitheater is also composted or recycled.
Curtiss, who is in her third term, said she was around when the Stimson Lumber Co. announced they were laying off employees and closing down back in 2008.
“I’m here to see all the activity going on,” Curtiss said. “It’s really exciting.”
Steve Nelson and Mike Boehme of Bonner Property Development were the local owners that bought the property after the mill closed and attracted businesses to the site. Today, the former mill is host to hundreds of workers, a bitcoin mining operation, a pre-painted siding business and many other niche endeavors.
“It’s pretty amazing to see what’s going on out here,” Nelson said.