BONNER - Just two hours before the old Stimson Lumber Co. millsite officially got new owners, Ray Hutson pulled his logging truck onto the property.
"We haven't hauled logs here since it went down three or four years ago," Hutson said as he worked to pull down the chains securing the full load of logs. "It's a shot in the arm. More places to go, more work."
Missoula developers Mike Boehme and Steve Nelson watched from the property's west side as the gigantic claws of a front-end loader grabbed the logs off Hutson's truck and added them to an ever-growing pile.
"It's just inspiring," said Boehme, who heads Bonner Property Development LLC with Nelson. "A lot of that is timber that would just fall and die. ... Now it's getting recycled."
At 3 p.m., the papers were signed and Bonner Property took over the property from Stimson Lumber Co.
Boehme and Nelson formed Bonner Property under their parent company, Western Montana Development. They're new to the industrial development world, but have already secured one tenant on their new property.
If it goes right, truckers like Hutson will continue bringing loads of logs - as many as 100 each day - onto the site that until its closure in 2008 was home to Stimson Lumber.
Boise Inc. is contracting with area logging companies that are, as of Thursday, sending about 30 trucks a day into the mill. About 8,000 tons of logs have built up there already.
Chipping company Willis Enterprises has an agreement with Boise to run a chipping operation on the property and is overseeing the log unloading until a temporary chipper is set up.
Montana Rail Link cars are scheduled to roll in after the new year - and after the logs have been chipped and are ready for hauling to a Boise paper mill in Wallula, Wash.
Boehme and Nelson are native Montanans who formed Western Montana Development in 1997. They previously purchased, renovated and rented out the Studebaker and DeMarois buildings in downtown Missoula. They've done housing developments as well.
"We were approached (to buy the Stimson site) and have been doing due diligence for 12 months," Boehme said. The industrial property element of the deal is "new to us," he said.
They saw potential in the property for several reasons - extensive acreage, building infrastructure, access to rail and proximity to the interstate highway.
Boehme and Nelson also saw an opportunity to give back. They want to keep the rich history of the timber industry in Bonner, and one part of their plan involves incorporating the set of old millhouses into the property.
They know how big a hit the Bonner community took when the mill closed.
"It was kind of sad to see it disintegrate. We're fortunate to be in a position to do something about it," Boehme said.
The deal to bring in Boise is just one of many to come, they hope, and brings at least a small part of the timber industry back to the site.
Chipping company Willis Enterprises is leasing 39 acres - about one-fifth - of the Stimson property to do its work for Boise. A temporary chipper is slated to be brought in early next year to start work. The plan is to have Boise invest in a permanent chipper that would be installed on the property's west end.
Currently, two Willis employees are overseeing the unloading now. Willis will have five or six employees working when the chipping operation begins running.
Willis is the second tenant on the property. Northwest Paint has leased 90,000 square feet in one building for several years, and will continue the lease under Bonner Property. That leaves 700,000 square feet of building space available.
Boehme and Nelson see their latest investment as a mixed-use property with multiple tenants. They want those tenants to guide the more specific vision of what the property will become.
"We're build to suit," Nelson said.
Interest from potential tenants so far has run the gamut and come from across the country and around the globe.
Rich Lane is a longtime Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. employee and now the fiber resources manager of Boise Inc. He helped broker the deal that brought Willis to the Stimson site.
When Lane set out to help complete a strategic plan last year, mapping out where Boise would get wood fiber supply for its pulp mills, he looked east. Not only did Stimson provide a property with viable logging infrastructure, the landscape itself was ripe for what Boise needed.
Logs that are too small, too crooked or dead can be used for chipping, then hauled to the mill in Wallula.
For example, trucker Hutson is working on a "fuel reduction project" on a ranch near Ovando that yields up to four truckloads of logs a day. The load he left in Bonner was a combination of fuel-reduction and beetle-killed logs, which can't be used in a sawmill but are perfect for pulping.
"We believe there's a sustainable supply of pulp wood here," Lane said.
The transportation element of the equation was also a strong lure, Lane said. Montana Rail Link has signed a long-term agreement with Boise and will be the transportation partner on the project. They hope to begin making shipments of chips in January, said Rail Link sales and marketing director Jim Lewis.
Lewis called the deal a "great opportunity." The contract calls for up to 1,500 rails cars per year for the operation.
Lane said Boise's commitment to the Bonner property is long term. Hutson said he's hopeful that's true.
"They say they're here for the long run. We think it will work out good," Hutson said.
Boehme knows it will take time and a lot of work before more projects like Boise's are added to the property. But for now, it's gratifying to see truckers like Hutson with more work.
"It's kind of like a Christmas present for Missoula," Boehme said.
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or a firstname.lastname@example.org.
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