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Joel Ramerez, right, and his crew with Interstate Steel, put metal siding on a massive 35,000-square-foot building in West Riverside that will soon be home to a Harris Thermal Transfer Products fabrication plant.

MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

WEST RIVERSIDE – Construction of the lofty fabrication plant in the former log yard across the Blackfoot River from the Bonner mill site should be finished this fall.

If its builder and Missoula County have their ways, it won’t sit lonely for long.

“Our plans are to subdivide, and we have multiple businesses interested in purchasing property there,” said Eric Groenweghe, general manager of Harris Thermal Transfer Products in Newburg, Oregon. “That’s kind of our goal, to try to bring other businesses in and have a little business park.”

It’s the county’s goal, too. The process of starting the Bonner area’s second new-tax enhancement district in two years is underway. If all the i’s can be dotted by the end of the year, the property tax dollars the new construction generates can be used by the county for infrastructure improvements at the 116-acre site.

Such districts outside an incorporated city are called tax economic development districts these days, said Janet Cornish of Community Development Services of Montana. That means they’re technically not TIF (tax increment finance) districts but TEDs, as defined by the 2013 Legislature.

“This will not raise taxes. It only affects the way government distributes them once they’re collected,” said Cornish, of Butte, who’s been hired by Missoula County along with Lanette Windemaker, a certified land planner from Bozeman, to lead the project.

They played similar roles in the creation of a TIF industrial district at the Bonner mill site in 2012. Initially, the west log yard site was to be included in that district but zoning issues interceded, said Barbara Martens, coordinator of special projects like this for Missoula County.

“The Legislature made some changes and zoning wasn’t an issue now, so we’re kind of going with Phase 2 of what was discussed in 2012,” Martens said.

Development will also happen in stages, Groenweghe said.

“There’s a big picture, and I think we’ll probably do it in multiple phases. We have 116 acres and out of that we have a good 60-plus acres (zoned) for heavy and light industrial that’s flat and attractive to businesses,” he said.

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Harris Construction, the Montana end of Harris Thermal, has already brought extra power and natural gas in to provide for other businesses. County public works officials say road infrastructure inside and around the fenced and bermed property will be Missoula County’s top priority. Public water and sewage systems – long obstacles in developing the West Riverside area – can also be built with the help of TED funds, Groenweghe said.

To qualify for a tax economic development district an area must be defined by the county and declared infrastructurally insufficient, steps county commissioners recently took. It must also have a diversified tenant base which a business park would provide.

Cornish and county representatives were at a joint meeting of the Bonner School board and Bonner-Milltown Community Council on Tuesday to explain the tax district proposal and solicit support from the community.

It was received with enthusiasm tempered with caution, Cornish said.

“Locally, you could say we’re excited about the growth but we’re cautious about tax deferment,” Bonner School Superintendent Doug Ardiana said Wednesday.

The school board opted to table a decision to write a letter of support or non-support.

The proposal will next be reviewed by the planning board for compliance with the county growth policy, then forwarded on to the county commissioners for final adoption.

If approved, the targeted economic development district won’t go into effect for 30 days, so to realize the tax benefits of investments made this year, commissioners must adopt it by the end of November, Cornish said.

By then Harris Manufacturing’s plant employing 25 to 30 welders should be in full operation. Groeneweghe said construction is on schedule for an early November opening.

Ironworkers from Interstate Steel Builders of Mackay, Idaho, will be finishing up framework and sheeting on the plant in the next couple of weeks. The building is 314 feet long, 112 feet wide and 45 feet high at its peak. Inside will be 35,000 square feet of fabrication space and 3,500 square feet of office space.

Harris Manufacturing will mirror its sister company in Oregon, Groeneweghe said, manufacturing processing equipment for a wide variety of uses, including pulp and paper production, water treatment and heat exchangers needed by virtually every industry.

“We build large industrial oil heaters that all the McDonald’s french fries are precooked in,” Groeneweghe said. “There’s also equipment that we’re building for water cleanup for some of the oil sands companies up in Canada.”

Harris hasn’t yet tapped into the Bakken oil fields, he added, but plans to seriously explore the possibilities now that it will have a plant 725 miles closer to the action in North Dakota and eastern Montana. Access to major highway corridors and rail lines in western Montana is a key reason Harris opted to locate here.

The company is working with the University of Montana’s Missoula College to funnel welders out to the workforce in West Riverside.

“Although we haven’t advertised yet, we’ve got a lot of interest,” Groeneweghe said. “When we do start looking at hiring, I think we’re going to have a pretty decent turnout. I just don’t want to do it prematurely.”

Harris is looking for welders, he added.

“Even when we hire untrained labor, we’re trying to train them in the welding industry, which is really kind of a dying art.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian