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Bonner business development

During the 1970s and ’80s, the plywood mill facility in Bonner was the largest of its kind in the world. Today, the site has been redeveloped and counts more than a dozen businesses employing hundreds of workers.

In stark contrast to the former mill property to the west of Missoula, the former Stimson Lumber mill site to the east is buzzing with economic activity — and brimming with opportunity.

Missoula County has thus far welcomed this transformation without reservation. Any and all potential businesses have been eagerly encouraged to consider taking up residence at the 170-acre property tucked between the Blackfoot River and Highway 200. And for the most part, the enterprises that have located there — from a bicycle trailer manufacturing company to a brewery complete with amphitheater — have been embraced by residents in every corner of the county.

A controversial bitcoin operation, however, has soured some county residents on the idea of offering up further public support without clear conditions. Bonner neighbors complain of the constant noise generated by large fans running around the clock to cool the computers used to “mine” cryptocurrency. Others are unhappy about the large amounts of energy consumed by such operations, and still others have concerns about the economic stability of electronic currency and its alleged ties to criminal activities.

Late last month, the Missoula Development Authority Board deadlocked with a tie vote on the question of whether to approve $135,000 in Tax Increment Financing for the bitcoin business, called Project Spokane, to buy new fans to mitigate the noise coming from the building. The property owners assured that the fans will still be replaced, with the cost being split between themselves and their tenant, but warned that doing so will take time and asked for patience.

In the meantime, Missoula County commissioners held a hearing this past week on the possibility of placing “emergency zoning” restrictions on the site. And another local business leader proposed leveraging economic district funds to kick-start extensive infrastructure projects. The benefit to the public, apart from the anticipated increase to the local tax base, would possibly include the donation of prime riverfront property.

Missoula County in general already benefits from the expanded industry at the Bonner site in many ways, from the increase in jobs to the broader economic base. But over the past decade, the Bonner community has undergone a sea change, and the county must be sensitive to the needs of the neighborhood if it hopes to help guide it through its growing pains.

The old Stimson plywood mill, plagued in its final years by temporary shutdowns and workforce reductions, closed for good in 2008. That was the same year the nearby Milltown Dam was removed, beginning the intensive process of restoring the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers. Missoula residents Mike Boehme and Steve Nelson purchased the mill site in 2011, and the Bonner Mill Tax Increment District was formed the following year, in 2012. Boehme and Nelson now lease space to more than a dozen different outfits employing hundreds of workers. The nearby Bonner West Log Yard Targeted Economic Development District was formed in 2014.

Given the proximity of residential neighborhoods, Missoula County leaders must work with the community, including the mill property owners, to set out clear guidelines for future industrial development. These guidelines should ensure that any business activity in Bonner is a good fit for the neighborhood.

This isn’t to say that businesses that aren’t a good fit should be turned away. Indeed, Missoula County has plenty of room for all sorts of economic activity, and enterprises that don’t work for places like Bonner might very well find their needs met at, say, the 450-acre Missoula Development Park out by the airport.

This is an area that has seen significant growth of its own in recent years. Just last fall, county commissioners agreed to provide $600,000 in tax increment financing assistance to help move the Coca-Cola bottling plant from its in-town location on Third Street to 18 undeveloped acres at the park on Expressway Boulevard. The money will be used, in large part, to put in a new road and make improvements to the public right-of-way.

Although the plan is in its earliest stages, it looks like commissioners will eventually be asked to use Targeted Economic Development District (TEDD) money from the Bonner West Log Yard to help launch major infrastructure construction that would entice new businesses. Harris Manufacturing’s general manager, Eric Groenweghe, told commissioners last week that he expects to approach them with a request for TEDD funds because his company does not have the money to pay for the projects, ranging from water and sewer lines to roads and electricity, on its own.

The aim would be to attract additional manufacturing businesses, and indeed, the entire point of Targeted Economic Development Districts is to help generate money for the specific purpose of enhancing economic development.

A paid consultant for the county who specializes in tax increment financing and TEDD funding told commissioners last week that Bonner residents are on board with the idea of using available money for infrastructure and other property improvements, including riverbank restoration. The donation of “virtually all” of the riverfront property, as Groenweghe hinted, would be icing on the cake.

As this proposal proceeds through its next stages, the Bonner community must be consulted every step of the way, and commissioners must be extra careful to pin down any promises with specific targets and definitive details.

Having been bitten by the bitcoin operation, Bonner residents have every reason to be a little more wary about what kinds of businesses they are prepared to welcome into their neighborhood. Commissioners should take that lesson and apply it throughout the county so they can rest assured that they are doing all they can to promote local economic development — while protecting other neighborhoods from being bitten too.

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