There is an entire magazine dedicated to inland ports, aptly called Inland Port Magazine, but not a lot of people in the Missoula area are familiar with the term.
Bill Paul, the president of the newly-created Bonner Transfer and Storage Co., is hoping to change that.
An inland port is a specialized location developed to connect different modes of the transportation network, in this case truck and rail delivery. Inland ports serve as transportation and freight hubs, as well as storage facilities, and can decongest delivery networks and encourage commercial activity. Paul is working on turning Bonner into an inland port to compete with others such as Denver and Salt Lake City. It's an ambitious project, but the former mill site turns out to be perfectly situated in terms of location and infrastructure.
Paul was working with clients in the rail business in Billings when he was contacted by the owners of the old Stimson Lumber Co. to take a look at the property to see if he could figure out a way to use it.
“They looked at getting a large-scale transloader (a company that can transfer freight from rail to truck and vice versa) here, and someone suggested talking to me,” Paul recalled. “I came here last summer, looked at the property, talked to the owners additionally and thought this is a tremendous opportunity for a large-scale freighting operation. Obviously not only the physical plant but the rail access is important.”
The old mill site, which hosts a variety of businesses now, turned out to be a perfect spot for an inland port.
“There is access to four rail spurs on this property. There’s two that come into the building and two outside the building, so from a capacity point of view, there’s not very many places, you know in the whole state of Montana – maybe in the region – that have the rail capacity that this location does,” Paul explained. “There’s nothing like this in Billings. There’s nothing like this in eastern Montana. If you could pick this up and move it to Glendive closer to the oil patch, it would be tremendous. But obviously that’s not the case. You couldn’t build this today and have that be economically viable. The cost of doing it would be prohibitive.”
Paul researched the region and the demand for freight handling and the rail freight volumes and trucking volumes.
“It struck me that in the transportation business they look for opportunities to develop this term ‘inland port’ so you think about it, we’re trying to be a large inbound freight handler,” he explained. “We want that freight that comes from L.A., and Portland and Seattle that’s coming in by ship and being shipped east.”
In order to capture the large volumes of freight that Paul wants to accomplish, several aspects of Bonner’s location are critical. There is access to both north-south and east-west highways, in the form of I-90 and I-15, and there are railways that more or less follow those highway routes in all four directions as well. And a large physical plant, for storage, staging and reloading, is necessary. That’s where the cavernous 300,000-square-foot warehouse at the former mill site comes in.
“We also offer trucking services,” Paul explained. “So a shipper could buy a railcar or 10 of some product like roofing materials like we have out in the warehouse now. They would ship it here, we offload it, and they can either pick it up or we will deliver it to them. And they can store it here for short or long term. Whatever works in their business model. So what it allows them to do is take advantage of bulk purchasing. The construction offseason is when construction companies and building materials companies get an opportunity to make large preseason buys at pretty deep discounts so plants can keep running through the winter. So we want to offer them the ability to do that, have a place to land the product – because they may not be able to land it at their location – and then distribute it to wherever they want it to go within a defined reason. And we think that target region for us is about a 200- or 300-mile radius from Missoula. So that’s the nutshell of what we’re doing.”
Obviously, the company is working closely with Montana Rail Link.
“They’re a great partner for us, and we also work with (BNSF Railway) indirectly,” Paul explained. “BNSF actually owns the track that runs through here but MRL leases it from them.”
Paul hopes his company is able to get on to BNSF’s “premier transloader designation” list, which shows all the largest providers by volume in every region of the country.
“We’re working hard to be a premier designated transloader here,” he said. “We expect that will probably be at the end of summer. It just opens more doors. If a shipper in Alabama is looking for a transloader in the west, the first ones they’ll see in the transloading directory if they are using BN as their rail source are all the premiers. So we’ll get the first shot, if you will, at the stuff that people are looking to ship into this area of the country.”
Paul said he hopes that his company’s presence will actually increase the amount of goods that are being shipped to and through the region.
“We want to encourage businesses to ship in here in larger volumes,” he said. “We also want to have shippers use this as a place to centralize and disperse to a smaller geographic region. So we want them to ship from all other parts of the country to here, for us to distribute in this smaller circle.”
Right now, some shipments bound for the region may be first be going to Salt Lake or Denver, and Paul wants Bonner added to that list.
“We want to say, we’ll take it all here,” Paul said.
Along with general manager Jesse Asher, Paul is also developing a large-scale document storage facility.
“So businesses that have to keep physical documents for any length of time, it’s far more cost-effective to store them in a centralized facility like this than to use their basement or garage or some other piece of their expensive square-footage of downtown Missoula for storing those records,” Paul explained. “We’ll store them out here and digitize them first if they want and provide them with remote access to their digital documents and provide them with pick-up and delivery service for their physical documents as well. We’re situated perfectly for that, and the security components required are easy for us to implement. We think there’s a tremendous opportunity to grow. If you think about health care institutions, accounting firms, law firms, right down to the local dentist and small clinics. And then think about the rural health care and rural financial institutions who don’t have centralized storage. We’ll bring all that stuff here.”
Asher said that the company recently got a call from Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest lumber companies in the country, asking about bringing their product in to Bonner to ship to wholesalers in the region.
“Our focus this year will be on OSB (oriented strand board, a type of particle board) and plywood,” he said. “In the big picture I want to generate other avenues of transloading because I don’t want to live and die by the building season. We also run a trucking division which is already taking off. So we’re excited about that.”