The old Stimson Lumber Co. sawmill in Bonner could win status as an inland port if a new company meets its goals in the coming months, providing the transfer and storage of goods for redistribution within a 300-mile radius.
Representatives from Bonner Transfer and Storage Co. met with Missoula County commissioners Wednesday to discuss their long-term plans. The firm established its business last month in an empty 300,000-square-foot warehouse at the sawmill and has already landed new clients.
“We work with companies that ship large quantities of freight into this area, whether it’s the final destination or is set for delivery within a 300-mile radius,” said William Paul, the company’s president. “Some of our initial customers are in the building materials area.”
Paul, joined by general manager Jesse Asher, said the property was unique in its size and location. The 300,000-square-foot warehouse – the largest building on the sawmill property – includes three 10 ton cranes and four rail spurs, two of which enter the warehouse.
Future storage and freight could range from automobiles to paint. The business would simplify the arrival of goods by rail, which generally get unloaded in Billings or Spokane, only to be shipped back to Missoula by truck.
“There isn’t another place in the West that offers this possibility,” Paul said. “Building that type of facility with that type of rail access wouldn’t be economically feasible today. We hope we can be a fundamental part of bringing business here.”
Running at full tilt, the property could see dozens of trucks and rail cars shipping goods to and from the facility. The company has already started operations and is aiming for a status as an inland port.
The location meets all the needed requirements, Paul said, including large storage capacity, rail and interstate proximity, and reasonable distance to sea ports, which exist in Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
While Bonner Transfer and Storage will work primarily with Montana Rail Link, it’s also looking to gain status with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway as a premier transloader within the next five months.
Getting selected isn’t easy, Paul said, but it comes with caveats once such status is gained. Paul successfully achieved the status with a smaller transfer and storage facility in Billings.
The center in Bonner would become the largest in the state.
“It puts us on the map in the transloader world,” Paul said. “It allows clients to drill down to the region, and it opens some big doors in the business world.”
The acquisition of Bonner Transfer and Storage continues the success of Steve Nelson and Mike Boehme, who purchased the defunct sawmill in 2011 and reinvented the site as Bonner Property Development.
The location now employs 250 people and continues to grow. By the end of this year, the property could employ 400 workers, according to James Grunke, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership.
“Creating a Tax Increment Financing District really incentivized the development we’ve seen there,” Grunke said. “There were 400 people that worked there when they (the sawmill) closed. By the end of this year, we could be back to that number. It’s pretty amazing.”
Over the past two years, the mill site has landed several large employers, including Montainer, Northwest Paint, Willis Enterprises and ALCOM. This year, ALCOM doubled the size of its lease space and has expanded into building horse trailers.
Just across the Blackfoot River, Harris Manufacturing plans to open next month, employing 20 to 30 specialized welders. The company manufactures stainless steel, nickel alloy and some titanium products for a number of industries, including pulp and paper, energy, food and chemical.
Jenn Ewan, director of entrepreneurship and special projects with MEP, said another company could join Harris Manufacturing in Bonner later this year.
LGT Advanced Technology is currently building an office in Lolo and may follow with a manufacturing plant in Bonner this summer. The company specializes in renewable energy systems with a focus on the design and development of efficient wind turbines.
Grunke added that LGT will employ 10 engineers at its Lolo office during the research and development phase. It’s unknown how many manufacturers the company would employ if it opens a Bonner plant.
“This year, we’re seeing expansions – businesses that have been waiting the last three years to grow,” Grunke said. “It’s going to be very significant. We’re already behind in attracting the workforce. That’s going to be part of our focus this year.”
KettleHouse Brewing is also expected to open a 30,000-square-foot production brewery in Bonner this year, and Grunke said a bike park that offers cyclists overnight camping is also in the works.
In other economic news, Grunke and Ewan said Missoula could become a sister-city with Bellingham, Washington, making it easier for companies there to expand to the Garden City.
New retail development is also heading to North Reserve Street. Several businesses are expected to realign their stores to accommodate the new growth, triggered in part by Consumer Direct and the construction of its $13 million office building.
Grunke wasn’t free to discuss other news, saying the deals weren’t yet closed and the information was still proprietary. When asked about development at the Southgate Mall and rumors of a new cinema, he said “significant development” is in the works.
He also said Neptune Aviation is expected to make a major announcement Feb. 25.
Other downtown projects confirmed for Missoula this summer include a $32 million Missoula College building on East Broadway, a new five-story Stockman Bank project, a new medical office tower at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, and a 500-bed student housing project on East Front Street.
Members of the city’s Development Services said in December that 2015 would be a “banner year” for Missoula with an estimated $190 million in commercial projects lined up to break ground.