As Columbia Falls’ largest employer Weyerhaeuser Co. shutters its mills, city officials are racing to fill the void before potential jobs find a place outside the North Valley city or the Flathead Valley.
When Weyerhaeuser announced it would permanently close its local lumber and plywood mills — leaving 72 people without work and removing roughly 200 jobs from Columbia Falls — the city qualified for a federal U.S. Economic Development Administration grant.
City Manager Susan Nicosia said the grant is a revolving loan fund for business expansion. But the application takes time, she said.
She said the city hopes to use the grant to revamp the 110-acre Columbia Falls Industrial Park, “which has historically been unused and undeveloped.” City staff gets a call about once a week from businesses looking for a facility in the area, she added.
“It’s an opportunity that would allow good, stable jobs in our community that could make up the loss of those Weyerhaeuser jobs,” Nicosia said. “But you have to have infrastructure for business. And right now, we don’t. ”
According to the city’s industrial park deficiency report, the site lacks road infrastructure, lot connections to city water and a sewer system that could support future development.
To create that foundation costs an estimated $1.2 million. Nicosia said there’s still no estimate on when the grant application will be done.
Nicosia said the town hasn’t fully recovered since Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. closed in 2009 and 88 jobs were lost. At its peak the company employed 1,200 people. Nicosia said the city qualified for the grant then, but the industrial park owner at the time didn’t want to sell or collaborate to put those dollars to use.
The most recent industrial park owner, BID Group of Companies based in Canada, approached the city in 2015 along with several businesses hoping to work together to create a space for manufacturers in Columbia Falls. More than a year later, the site is shovel-ready, but the funds still are not in place. And in the meantime, some businesses looking to set up shop in the Flathead Valley are considering other options.
IN MAY, the manager of Stampede Packing Co. smiled for a camera as he accepted a $27,000 grant from the Big Sky Trust to research and design a new facility. He stood on a patch of dirt in the industrial park with Nicosia in the background.
“Ideally, we were going to find a way to build and expand there,” said T.S. Laurens, the owner of Stampede Packing Co., which makes Redneck brand meat products.
But roughly four months after the celebratory photo was snapped, the industrial park is still undeveloped and Stampede is working to connect to the city of Kalispell instead.
“It didn’t make sense to wait,” Laurens said “We’ve outgrown our wastewater system and before doing anything else we needed a larger system. That’s something the industrial park wasn’t able to pull off right now.”
Laurens said his Kalispell property on Airport Road, surrounded by residences and property for a future elementary school, is less ideal and more expensive — both to create the wastewater infrastructure and due to the city’s higher impact fees. He said hooking up to the Kalispell wastewater treatment system will cost roughly half a million dollars.
“A lot had to come together for the park to be ready,” Laurens said. “For example, a 100-acre industrial park needs a major tenant to sustain it, and that was even hard to know for sure, too.”
SMARTLAM could be that tenant, Casey Malmquist said.
The founder of SmartLam, Malmquist said the Flathead Valley has a skilled labor force and his company has jobs — he just needs a place to put a facility.
The company began in Montana in 2012 as the first manufacturer in the United States to create cross-laminated timber, CLT, an engineered wood product, “which is basically plywood on steroids,” Malmquist said.
He said he began the hunt more than a year ago to find a space in Flathead County to expand his business from 35 employees to roughly 150. Those jobs include engineers, technicians, millwrights and other well-paying jobs.
“The goal was to make Montana synonymous with CLT. My heart wants to be here but quite frankly it’s getting hard to do,” he said. “And at the end of the day, we’re a business. At some point, your head has to take control.”
The relocation to the Columbia Falls park also hinges on SmartLam securing a $14 million new market tax credit — another federal program that helps development in low-income cities. But that federal decision has been pushed back to October.
In the time it’s taken for funds to come together on both sides of the equation, other states have begun to court SmartLam. Malmquist said the company is now considering building its new manufacturing site in Montana, Idaho, Washington and several states in the Southeast such as North Carolina. He has an upcoming trip to Maine look at another possible site.
Malmquist, who also owns and operates Malmquist Construction Co. in Whitefish, said other challenges to expanding in Montana include limited access to timber and the fact that Montana has higher taxes than competing states.
A board member of Montana West Economic Development, Malmquist said he’s been part of Columbia Falls’ effort to revitalize the industrial park and will continue to work to create space for industry throughout Montana — whether he moves his business to a new state or not.
“I live here, I’ve had the time and the resources to spend months looking for a place — twice now. Out-of-town businesses will have a week to search, then they’re gone,” Malmquist said. “The opportunity for relocation just isn’t here. And it’s important. I would like my kids to be able to have a future in this valley outside of changing beds and serving tables.”
Nicosia said she shares Malmquist’s frustration to see industry struggle to establish in the Flathead.
She said until Columbia Falls secures the development grant, the city will continue to share with businesses why the city and the Flathead Valley is a good place to locate.
“This is a place people want to be. It’s a place to raise your family, we have housing for every income level, a small-town feel and all the amenities,” Nicosia said. “We’re in that perfect time right now to take advantage of an economic development grant, so that when that next person comes in looking for a site, we’ll be ready.”
Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at email@example.com.