Business booms in Bonner as old mill site takes on new life

The old Stimson Mill site is seeing new life, with hundreds of jobs there 10 years after the lumber mill closed down and nearly devastated the town of Bonner, east of Missoula along the Blackfoot River.

From 1886 to 2008, a lumber mill kept the area thriving. New owners and developers took it over in 2011, and today the changes are prominent.

County Commissioner Jean Curtiss was a founding member of the Missoula Economic Partnership and she toured the Bonner Mill Industrial Park Monday. Her first stop was with Willis Enterprises, a chipping company that employs about 10 people. Then it was on to Alcom, a company that manufactures aluminum trailers. After that -- Coaster pedicabs, a place where a unique type of bike is built.

The wide variety of businesses in the area doesn't stop with those, there is also a Bitcoin mining facility and an amphitheater nearby, among other things.

We’re told 450 people work on the site today, but just across the street a group of men remember an era when there were around 1,000 employees. They meet for coffee inside the museum on Tuesdays. A lot of them worked at the mill, and they all remember it in its prime.

"It was an honest day's work for an honest day's pay," said Glen Smith, a former lumber mill employee who is known as the Bonner hooligan.

"It was an exciting time. Some of the best forestry that was practiced was practiced on company lands there," said Andy Lukes, a former mill employee and Missoula resident.

"Years ago, if you got on at the mill, you had a job for life... But that changed," said Dave Otto of Turah. There was a nod of agreement around the room.

The group explained that when the mill closed the community took a hit.

"A lot of the younger people left the community (while) the older residents... we tended to export a lot of our kids. They needed jobs, they needed opportunities, and so it's been difficult here, and we're really glad to see the Bonner mill site re-industrialized," said Lukes.

Though the area looks very different today, Smith said there is something that's similar to the large timber mill it once was.

"The innovations and the changes never stopped out here. I think Bonner was kind of magical in a way that everybody had a good idea. They tried (those ideas) and it worked. It made us very successful as a lumber mill, and I think, from what I'm seeing today, that's still going on -- people with really good ideas," said Smith.

It's bringing life back to the small Montana town and keeping it on the cutting edge of mechanized jobs.

More businesses are already in the works. The men in the museum pointed out a catering business going in across the street that they are looking forward to seeing open.

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