BONNER — When Steve Nelson and Mike Boehme bought the former Stimson lumber mill site in Bonner in 2011, they saw potential in the blighted, polluted industrial area.
Recently, the duo gave a tour to showcase the business activity going on there. Today, 10 separate businesses employing roughly 250 people occupy the 170-acre site, including a huge data center, an aluminum trailer company that employs 170 people and KettleHouse Brewing Co., which is set to begin producing more than 60,000 barrels of beer from a massive new facility this fall.
For Boehme, the revitalization of Bonner into a manufacturing hub has been a laborious process, but he’s pleased with the tenants that now call it home.
“We’ve kissed a lot of frogs over the years,” he said, referring to potential tenants that didn’t work out for various reasons. “But we’ve found some princes too.”
Britt Fred is the president of Northwest Factory Finishes, a company that employs 40 people in a 195,000-square-foot warehouse on the site. They create pre-finished building materials and ship to customers all over the country, which means dollars are flowing back to Missoula from out of state.
His company was one of the first to occupy the site after Stimson shut down. The mill’s closure was a huge economic hit to Missoula and especially to Bonner, but companies like his have helped create a remarkable turnaround.
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“It was a ghost town out here in 2009 when we first arrived here,” Fred said. “But working with Mike and Steve, we were able to create space, which I had to have, and the opportunity to grow. And it’s been a great relationship and we’ve worked well together as pioneers out here and now it’s great to see all the other industry that’s out here.”
Zeb Harrington, the operations manager of KettleHouse Brewing Co., said the new brewing facility should be operational by October. They’re putting the finishing touches on a canning machine from Germany, which will be able to crank out up to 200 cans of beer per minute. The new site will employ approximately 15 people and more than double KettleHouse’s current output. Again, the product will be shipped outside of Missoula and bring money back to the community that otherwise wouldn’t be here.
Montana Data, LLC is a private company that built a massive data center inside the largest warehouse on the site, which happens to be one of the largest timber-framed structures in North America.
The firm employs more than a dozen people and uses huge computers to balance the energy loads of several states when wind dies down or prices change.
“They found us on Zillow,” Boehme said, referring to a real estate listing site.
In the end, the company chose Missoula because they were able to lease a huge space at an affordable price in a location where energy is cheap and humidity and temperatures are relatively low.
Coaster Pedicab, another company at the site, creates custom bikes and operates them all over the country. They manufacture the bikes using a crew of welders on the spot and then sell advertising to go on the side. Other companies include Willis Enterprises, a log chipping company, custom metal forgers Hellgate Forge, custom shipping container company Montainer, and organic fertilizer firm Montana Grow. Boehme and Nelson also rehabilitated 42 houses on the site that are now used for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 program that helps very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled afford safe and sanitary homes.
It’s a diverse array of business and residential activity that has Boehme hopeful about the future of the old lumber mill. There’s still about 100 acres on the site available for lease, and many companies can negotiate an option to buy. The tour on Monday was sponsored by the Missoula Economic Partnership, which has worked to attract businesses to the area.
“We’re constantly trying to do improvements out here,” Boehme said.