Although advocates of free-flowing rivers saw the spring of 2008 as momentous because of the historic removal of the Milltown Dam, it was a tumultuous low point for the workers and their families at the Stimson lumber mill in Bonner a few hundred yards from the dam.
That March, coincidentally, crews got a 60-day notice of the mill's impending full shutdown, which meant more than 100 workers would lose their jobs due to what company officials said was a downturn in the timber industry. Before Stimson owned the mill, Champion International employed roughly 400 workers there.
The mill was by far the largest employer in Bonner and one of the larger employers in the county, and its closure followed on the heels of the shutdown of the Bonner plywood plant the year before.
And because the layoffs came right before the national housing mortgage bubble crisis and the start of the Great Recession, the Missoula County economy suffered a huge blow.
“It was a very shocking time,” said Gary Matson, a longtime resident and former Bonner-Milltown Community Council member. “Many families, their whole family history was people employed by the mill or relatives. It truly was a social anchor as well as an employment anchor.”
But, like the health of the river that meanders nearby, it slowly but surely came back to life. As Missoula celebrates the 10-year anniversary of the removal of a man-made barrier on the river, the community of Bonner is celebrating a success story that’s also been a decade in the making.
The 170-acre Bonner mill site was purchased by two local businessmen, Steve Nelson and Mike Boehme, in 2011. They saw promise on the forlorn industrial site, because it had access to massive amounts of electrical power that the mill had used. It also had security fences and was located on railroad tracks for businesses that needed shipping, and it was within a long stone’s throw of Interstate 90.
Most important, it had a lot of bare land, parking spots and empty buildings, all at a premium in the confined mountain valleys of Missoula and Bonner. The site also was near the jewel that is the confluence of the pristine Blackfoot River and the now free-running Clark Fork River, which saw hundreds of boaters and anglers every year.
Every year since 2011, new businesses have set up shop at the former mill site, transforming it into a thriving industrial park with a wide variety of entrepreneurs and organizations.
“We now have in excess of 17 different companies that work out of the mill, everywhere from a two- to four-man shop to one company with 180-plus employees,” Boehme told the Missoulian recently. “There’s a total of about 450 workers out there now.”
That means the site is back to having as many workers as it did in its heyday.
“The mill had been our economic center and to have it back in business with a bunch of diversified industries is really a big asset,” added Matson.
Olivia Riulta, the chair of the Bonner-Milltown Community Council, said she and other community leaders have been discussing ways to attract more businesses to take advantage of the momentum.
“Since Mike and Steve purchased the site they really began working to bring jobs back,” she said. “We’ve seen incredible growth in jobs at the mill. They’ve done a great job of working with the community and the council to update us and bring more businesses into the mill site.”
She also said that more and more people every year come into the community for outdoor recreation, especially because the new Milltown State Park is set to open this year. The council is working with the county to update land use maps.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about whether we want to have a coffee shop or a brewery or a restaurant,” she said.
There’s a huge aluminum trailer manufacturing company called Alcom, which employs about 160 workers and churns out 25 high-end trailers every day in a 100,000-square-foot warehouse. There’s Coaster Pedicab, a company that makes bicycle trailers designed to haul people or cargo. They are close to making an announcement about a partnership with a major national beverage company for a contract to produce specially designed cargo bikes.
Nearby is Northwest Factory Finishes, a company that employs more than 40 people in a 195,000-square-foot warehouse. They create pre-finished siding and building materials and ship to customers all over the world. President Britt Fred said his company was one of the first to occupy the site after Stimson shut down.
“It was a ghost town out here in 2009 when we first arrived here,” Fred said. “But working with Mike and Steve, we were able to create space, which I had to have, and the opportunity to grow,” he said. “And it’s been a great relationship and we’ve worked well together as pioneers out here and now it’s great to see all the other industry that’s out here.”
KettleHouse Brewing Co. in Missoula decided to open a large third brewing operation and taphouse at the former mill site, which allows it to brew and ship beer all over Montana. Nearby, local entrepreneur Nick Checota built a 4,000-seat amphitheater for outdoor concerts, including a sheltered stage and concession areas. He plans on selling 65,000 tickets to shows this summer, and has announced a portion of ticket and beer sales will go to Trout Unlimited to benefit the health of the Blackfoot River.
Other businesses on the site include an indoor LED-lit garden inside an old storage container, a log chipping company called Willis Enterprises, a custom knife manufacturing company called Hellgate Forge, a coffee company, a bitcoin mining facility (which was attracted to the high volumes of power capacity and empty warehouses), along with numerous other enterprises.
Boehme and Nelson also rehabilitated 42 houses on the site that were built for millworkers and their families. The houses are now used for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program that aids low-income people, the elderly and the disabled find safe, affordable and sanitary homes.
The development was aided by Missoula County, which created the Bonner Mill Tax Increment District in 2012 to try to incentivize private investment. A portion of property taxes are reimbursed into new projects rather than going to the county’s general fund.
Other areas besides the mill site have seen job growth as well. Harris Manufacturing employs dozens of welders at the old Bonner West Log Yard site.
“I was around when the mill closed in 2008, and I’m amazed at all the activity that’s going on out here now,” said county commissioner Jean Curtiss.
Nelson has said that unlike the former Smurfit-Stone plant in Frenchtown, which has sat vacant since it closed in 2010, the owners of the Stimson Lumber Co. had environmental remediation work completed before they moved out. He also attributed the success of the early days of the Bonner site’s redevelopment to attracting a few key tenants at lower prices to get the ball rolling.
“Like a lot of things, it takes one to start and then other people come along and see activity and say, ‘Wow, there is something going on here,’ and they get interested,” Nelson recalled. “We did truly also have really good help from our community, and that includes the Missoula Economic Partnership and the county. They didn’t give us anything, but they were supportive.”
Matson said the town has changed a lot, mainly because the millsite no longer almost exclusively employs people who live in Bonner.
“It’s not the same kind of good, but it’s a new kind of good,” he said.