County commission requests seventh -- and final -- extension to Stinger Welding grant

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Tina Oliphant, executive director of the Kootenai River Development Council. Libby City Council meeting, Aug. 1, 2016. (Paul Sievers/The Western News)

When the Lincoln County Commission agreed May 24 to request for the seventh time an extension to a Montana Department of Commerce grant awarded to Stinger Welding in 2009, all three commissioners also agreed it would be the last time the existing commission would grant such a request.

“I’m probably going to go against my gut here, which I don’t do very often,” said Commissioner Mark Peck. “But this is the last time for me on this. I just don’t want these obligations hanging out over our head.”

Tina Oliphant, executive director of the nonprofit Kootenai River Development Council, made the request on behalf of the organization and the Lincoln County Port Authority, which is trying to develop the site occupied by Stinger Welding until its closure in 2013.

Awarded in 2009, the Big Sky Trust Fund grant was contingent upon Stinger Welding creating 96 jobs that paid the average county wage — $13.55 an hour at the time — and lasted for at least two years. In 2015, the Montana Department of Commerce expanded its requirements to include jobs created at the site now being developed as Kootenai Business Park.

To date, 75 jobs fitting the grant’s requirements have been created, Oliphant said. At least nine of those jobs have been created at River Country Wood Products, though it was unclear how many of the 75 jobs still exist.

The obligations Peck referred to include $172,000 owed on the grant, as well as approximately $340,000 in back taxes on the Stinger Welding building and approximately $340,000 owed on another grant for a lithium battery-powered golf car business that failed.

The immediate decision facing the commission was whether to approve requesting the extension — which the Montana Department of Commerce could still deny — or to pay the $172,000 to cover the shortage of 21 jobs.

“So what’s the downside of just paying it off and closing it?” Peck asked of Oliphant, before saying that the county has the money to cover the $172,000.

“We don’t know what’s going on with that Stinger Welding building,” she said. “It’s a big unknown and a big opportunity and I believe we will have more jobs in the next 12 months. To close it out now means we would end up writing out a check for a greater amount than we would a year from now.”

The Port Authority has been disputing with Tommy Fisher, owner of the Stinger Building, what to do with the property. While Fisher is its legal owner, Oliphant said “there is an equitable amount of money there from both sides that can be proven ... and that money was put in (by the Port Authority) with some expectations that weren’t honored.”

Oliphant said both parties mediated outside of court an agreement to “use best efforts to sell the property to a bona fide purchaser in an arm’s length transaction for the benefit of both parties.”

In addition to the potential of the building’s sale and the jobs it could bring, Oliphant said that River Country Wood Products “continues to grow.” She also pointed to SK Fingerjoint’s foothold at the park, and highlighted the Port Authority’s efforts to upgrade a BNSF rail spur coming into the site.

“If we continue on this trendline ... there will be such positive unknowns,” Oliphant told the commissioners.

Peck, along with fellow commissioners Jerry Bennett and Mike Cole and County Administrator Darren Coldwell, expressed concern that the county could potentially be on the hook for $800,000 or more. Oliphant responded that the Port Authority recognized its obligation and has “no expectations that the county is going to (cover) that.”

“What I’m hearing is we need the Port Authority to put forth some sort of plan for us to understand how these liabilities are going to be dealt with,” Peck said.

At the end of the discussion commissioners Peck, Bennett and Cole all agreed to request the extension to give the Port Authority, in Cole’s words, the “opportunity to tip this over in the right direction.”

“But I do agree that we’re going to have to start seeing some results and successes,” Cole said.

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