In the wake of a Nov. 9 meeting about redeveloping the 400-acre Lincoln County Port Authority site in Libby — as well as ongoing concerns from residents and potential entrepreneurs — the Lincoln County Commission recently signaled it’s time to restructure management of the Port Authority to improve the site’s viability.
“It’s prudent that we reassess where things are at,” said Commissioner Mark Peck at the Commission’s Nov. 29 meeting. “Any organization that’s been in existence for 14 years should be looking at itself.”
Lincoln County in 2003 created the Port Authority — a quasi-governmental organization — to develop the commercial and industrial site, which the county acquired after Stimson Lumber Company left it in 2002. The Port Authority is governed by a nine-member volunteer board whose members the Commission appoints for five-year terms. (Due to a vacancy, the board currently has eight people.)
The Port Authority has faced challenges in developing the site, referred to as Kootenai Business Park. Failed ventures such as LiV Golf Cars not only produced too few jobs to fulfill development grant requirements, but left the Port Authority with tax or other liabilities. Stinger Welding already had been struggling financially before it closed its Libby facility after its CEO died in a plane crash in late 2012, after which the Port Authority and the company faced a protracted fight regarding ownership of cranes, related equipment and the building itself. (Stinger Welding removed the cranes under court order in 2016; on Nov. 8, 2017, after about six months of out-of-court mediation, the Port Authority and Fisher Industries, the building’s owner, reached an agreement to sell the building.)
The Commission pointed to the site’s existing and potential liabilities as cause for concern for the county, which Peck said could no longer take the hands-off approach it historically has with oversight of the Port Authority.
“So it’s a Port Authority deal, but (it) ultimately falls back on the citizens of Lincoln County,” he said. “There’s a lot of the citizens’ tax money floating here.”
The Port Authority’s liabilities are approximately $900,000, according to its executive director Tina Oliphant.
“You have three commissioners that are looking at long-term growth and long-term liability,” said Commissioner Jerry Bennett, who sits on the Port Authority board. “We have enough issues to deal with and we don’t need to be four years down the road and have another million or two million (dollars) hanging over our head. It’s ultimately our responsibility, and so when the crap hits the fan it’s our fault. We’re just trying to get ahead of that.”
He and Peck said they did not intend to point fingers.
“I don’t want to take away from the amount of time and work and effort that people have put in over the years,” Peck said. “That’s not the point here.”
Kevin Peck, chair of the Port Authority board, indicated he understood where the Commissioners were coming from.
“This might be a good time to reset, and get it moving the right direction,” he acknowledged.
The Nov. 9 redevelopment meeting made it clear that the site has great potential, according to those who attended both that meeting and the Nov. 29 Commission discussion. Yet it also highlighted the site’s shortcomings and what must happen for it to be marketable.
One thing Mark Peck said he took away from the redevelopment meeting was the need to privatize economic development of the site.
“I think we’ve kind of known (that) but were just afraid to rip the bandaid off,” he said.
The site’s lack of water, sewer and other infrastructure, as well as a comprehensive plan, were cited as items needing to be addressed for privatization efforts to bear fruit.
“In the world of economic development, that’s exactly what businesses are looking for,” said Commissioner Mike Cole.
Kevin Peck, who has served on the Port Authority board since Oct. 2012, outlined the challenges the Port Authority has faced. He acknowledged the lack of a comprehensive development plan, explaining that they’ve worked under a project-by-project “bandaid process” in which they address issues or possibilities as they arise — a process, he said, “which in itself is not good because it doesn’t take care of what might happen down the road.”
He also noted an approach to economic development that’s “the reverse” of how it’s done elsewhere, with entrepreneurs going to where the expertise is and “then they do their own thing (usually) on their own land.”
“I believe our whole approach (has been), well, we have this (site), (therefore) we got to make it work somehow,” he said. “That’s part of what I think you’re saying, and I think we’re all realizing that now.”
Chairman Peck also suggested the structure of the board might be “part of the problem creator.”
“The idea of a nine-person board, as the original bylaws put together, probably was somewhat flawed,” he said, agreeing with Commissioner Peck’s recommendation of a smaller and therefore more nimble board.
Even moving from quarterly meetings to monthly meetings about a year ago wasn’t enough, Kevin Peck said.
“This is a volunteer board, all of us, we’re all very busy in other activities … and it’s a lot to try to handle once a month with eight people or nine people,” he said, adding that they often spend much of the meeting educating one another on the topic at hand rather than acting upon it.
“That’s not exactly a good use of time,” he said.
Bennett agreed with that assessment, admitting that as a result the board is “really not hands on, and it’s a breakdown that affects both Tina (Oliphant) and (operations manager) Brett (McCully).”
Kevin Peck suggested the first priority be to reassess the board’s structure, and asked that the Commission both weigh in on that and provide a written directive for the board to follow.
“I’m not one for futzing around,” he said. “If we’re going to do it, let’s get it going, let’s have a plan (soon), because we’ve got the new year coming up.”
When asked by Commissioner Cole for her ideas, Oliphant also touched upon the need for planning.
“We don’t have an action plan,” she said. “ I have an action plan in my head, I’m sure Brett (McCully) has one in his head. That’s not the way to function though.”
The action plan, she suggested, should come from the Port Authority board, and include hard deadlines for when to accomplish each item.
Oliphant believed it would be “an easy thing to change” in their culture.
“That’s how I believe you become successful,” she said. “You start getting things done, and it has to be dynamic of course.”
Oliphant also acknowledged that “we do have some really pretty ugly liabilities … but they’re isolated and they’re from the past.”
Noting limited financial resources — the Port Authority’s sole revenue are rents and some insurance settlements, she said — Oliphant also encouraged another cultural shift, where the Port Authority could leverage the skills and resources of other people and organizations in the community whose aims align with economic development.
From Mark Peck’s perspective, it’s “critical” that the 400-acre site be cleaned of the detritus that’s accumulated over the years.
“I get a lot of complaints about the way the place looks,” he said.
Kevin Peck said the board has considered cleanup in the past, but “it was always an expense, and that was the problem: do we want to spend money on that, or do we want to try to create jobs, because that still was the main component we all felt we were in charge of trying to create.”
He said he “totally understood” that cleanup was crucial and part of the site’s “marketability process.”
“You’ll find that we’re pretty much on board with wherever this (reassessment) goes,” he said, and soon reiterated his request that the Commission move quickly.
“We’ve got things in play, (and) the longer we’re up in the air the harder it is to do things,” he said. “The sooner whatever happens, happens, is best. Then we can get busy with direction and plan and plus handle the things that are already in play.”
Mark Peck said he thought that “we can rapidly put into play what we want to happen.”
He later underscored that sense of urgency.
“I truly think there’s a new energy looking at Libby,” he said. “We need to be nimble enough and be moving quick enough here so that we’re ready as that starts to happen, because I know there’s people sitting (and) waiting to invest in Libby, Montana.”