Eli Hannon crouches next to a plywood crate that's almost as tall and twice as long as he is. He nails the seams together, and double-checks the seal. This crate is about to begin an 8,000-mile journey, via container ship, from Bonner to the other side of the world, so it needs to hold.
Inside the box is a pedicab – a bicycle taxi to the uninitiated. A pedicab looks a lot like a gigantic tricycle, but with a comfy love seat and canopy snuggled between the two rear wheels. This one will soon begin carting people through the streets of Wellington, New Zealand.
Twenty-nine-year-old Hannon helped make the pedal-powered vehicle from scratch, inside an old stone building off Montana Highway 200, a few miles east of Missoula. He’s the head assembly guy at Coaster Pedicab, a new manufacturing company that has made a home at the former Stimson lumber mill.
“I come from the Pacific Northwest, which is like the land of defunct lumber mills,” said Hannon. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen this kind of [revival] happen before. We’ve got just a ton of different companies on the site here.”
Hannon is only exaggerating the number slightly. Coaster Pedicab is one of 13 businesses now occupying the 170-acre site, and there’s room for a few more, says Mike Boehme, co-owner of the property.
Not very long ago, Bonner appeared destined to become just another timber ghost town when the Stimson mill, which began operating in 1886 to meet the demands of the mining boom and railroad expansion, shuttered its doors for good in 2008 after a slow, painful decline.
But these days, the opposite is happening. A manufacturing hub is rising from the ashes of the defunct lumber mill and the community is experiencing something of a revitalization.
“I think it's been one of the best stories emerging out of the recession, not only for Missoula, but for Montana,” says James Grunke, CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership.
Unlike many other states, Montana’s manufacturing employment has actually been growing for a number of years, at a rate double the national average. Missoula County has been at or near the front of the pack, and the new businesses taking shape in Bonner reflect that data.
There are now about 300 people working on site, which is the same number of jobs that were lost when Stimson closed.
Except, this time, the jobs aren’t all with one employer.
“The more diversified, the greater the opportunity you have to maintain [jobs],” said Boehme. “We could lose a business, but we would still have 12 left. Diversity is a big part of it. We’re not solely dependent on the lumber industry.”
After Stimson closed, Boehme and his business partner, Steve Nelson, recognized that the mill had all the criteria that manufacturing businesses need and want: proximity to a skilled labor force, good transportation (with a rail link running through the property and the highway next door), flat ground and access to bigger markets.
Coaster Pedicab themselves landed there almost by accident. After coming to Montana to connect with a bike supplier in Darby, Coaster soon outgrew their capacity and started looking for a place to set up their own assembly shop.
Last summer, they were on the fence about relocating to Maine, the Bay area in California or staying in Montana. But the Bonner mill wasn’t yet on their radar.
At that point, Coaster co-owner Justin Bruce gave Grunke a call. They had coffee. Grunke listened to what they were looking for. By that afternoon, the Coaster owners were in meetings with a bank president to secure financing, and with new mill owners, who saw their vision and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“It was kind of that night that we were cheers-ing over a Kettlehouse beer,” Bruce said. “Everything was coming together. And it made sense to be here.”
Manufacturing industries in Montana actually have a fairly small footprint, making up only about 7 percent of Montana’s total economy, says Patrick Barkey, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.
But, advanced manufacturing businesses like Coaster do most of their business with the rest of the world, and bring in new sales and revenue from outside the state into the community. They are therefore not limited by the spending power of Montanans, and are what Barkey calls a “net add.”
But something else is happening in Bonner that’s harder to show with a calculator.
“One of the unique things about this site that we hadn’t initially imagined was the synergy that exists,” said Mike Boehme. “For example, we have [Hellgate Forge], and he does a lot of work for Pedicab. And ALCOM, the trailer manufacturer, builds boxes for Pedicab. And of course, everyone drinks Cold Smoke.”
Kettlehouse Brewing Company, the maker of Cold Smoke Scotch Ale, is opening its biggest brewery location yet, right across the way from Coaster Pedicab.
They got to talking with the guys at Coaster, and now they’re the proud owners of a custom-designed beer bike that is turning heads at brew fests and around town. Thanks to the bike, Kettlehouse is selling out of beer even faster than usual.
“If you see a bike hauling a big trailer, the first thing that you think to yourself is that you hope it’s full of beer,” said Zeb Harrington, the operations manager at Kettlehouse. “This one actually is, which is awesome. I think that’s why people are pumped about it.”
For now, the 10-person team at Coaster is focusing their efforts on pedicab production, and designing more types of cargo bikes that offer a green method of transporting and delivering other desirables, such as ice cream and library books, all around town.
The company recently celebrated its first anniversary at the Bonner mill.