Rising from the ashes: Redevelopment confab spurs hope for Libby

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It’s no secret Libby has faced more than its fair share of economic adversity.

A waning timber industry, the lingering health effects of toxic asbestos exposure from the W.R. Grace & Co. vermiculite mine and the herculean effort to clean up the contamination have been huge challenges.

And the economic blows have continued. In 2012 the owner of Stinger Welding died in a plane crash, forcing the steel girder manufacturer into bankruptcy. Seventy workers lost their jobs the following year. Less than two weeks ago fire destroyed two buildings in Libby’s Kootenai Business Park that were part of the SK Fingerjoint complex. Close to 20 people lost their jobs in that tragedy.

This year’s wildfire season also took an economic toll on the Libby area, from personal property loss and loss of tourism income as smoke filed the air.

Yet talk to any of the community stakeholders who attended the Nov. 9 roundtable discussion about the redevelopment of the 400-plus acre former Stimson Mill and you’ll find Libby’s resolve and resilience once again on display. This is a community that never gives up and has learned to look ahead and figure out a way to get things done.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Lincoln County Port Authority hosted the collaborative event with the goal of determining a long-range plan and concrete next steps for the turning the expansive mill site into an economically viable enterprise.

The EPA is involved with the redevelopment plan as part of the agency’s Superfund Redevelopment Initiative. Cleanup at this portion of the Libby Asbestos Superfund Site is now complete, with some remaining cleanup work in Libby and Troy projected to be finished by the end of 2018.

“[This] event allowed for terrific collaboration among local stakeholders and experts who have contributed to successful redevelopment in other Montana communities with similar challenges,” said Jennifer Harrison, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator for the Libby Superfund site. “We will be working with the Lincoln County Port Authority to determine next steps, but there was strong stakeholder interest in working toward a community-wide vision for redevelopment.”

Andy Shirtliff, small business ombudsman for the Montana Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said the crux of the Nov. 9 meeting was to “find a way forward where Libby can lead.

“We’re here to help be part of the solution, but Libby has to take the reins,” Shirtliff said. “We think [the meeting] opened eyes and opened some doors. Libby coming together at the table is a big first step.”

Shirtliff said he was pleased to learn that the Lincoln County Port Authority and Fisher Industries have put the Stinger facility in the Kootenai Business Park up for sale.

Port Authority Director Tina Oliphant said that the authority and Fisher Industries recently signed a settlement agreement that enables the facility to be sold.

“LCPA and Stinger have resolved all past issues between the parties, and look forward to attracting a purchaser of the facility to bring jobs and economic development to Libby,” Oliphant said.

The Stinger facility offers a 100,000-square-foot building on a tract of nearly nine acres in the business park.

“Clearly we are encouraged that this building will find a marketable use that serves economic prospects for Libby,” she said.

Oliphant said she, too, felt the roundtable discussion was productive and helped get all of the stakeholders on the same page.

“To have the county and the city represented was a real key to productive dynamics because they are the key,” Oliphant said. “Their willingness to share candid ideas on how we get unstuck, that was a theme in this environment.

“I was so pleased with the information the [participants] shared and how thought-provoking it was for a mixed audience of the port authority, city and county and private citizens. The common denominator is how you pivot and are nimble with challenging properties.”

The port authority has worked for three years to develop a rail spur into the Kootenai Business Park. Having access to the BNSF mainline is a big opportunity for the Libby area to attract business development, she said. A ribbon-cutting for the rail spur was postponed, however, amid the aftermath of the SK Fingerjoint fire.

James Grunke, chief executive officer of the Missoula Economic Partnership, was one of the participants in the roundtable discussion. He wrote about his take-away message in a column published in the Missoulian, noting that the Libby site will be the first Superfund site in Montana to be delisted, “so clearly there are lessons to be learned.

“I think what struck us as remarkable was the vibrancy, the energy and the pride of all the citizens we met in Libby,” Grunke wrote. “They are proud of who they are, where they live and have a profound sense of community. They are, however, worried about what their future looks like. The clean site and can-do attitude presents a tremendous opportunity for Libby.”

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