Highway 200 could get a lot busier in the years to come. Last October, the BitterRoot Economic Development District applied for a $17,934 state grant to complete a transport plan for oversized loads between Bonner and the Port of Sweetgrass. Now the study is underway, marking the first potential step toward Bonner becoming a manufacturing hub for Canadian oil fields.
“If you look at both the Bakken and the oil sands and you draw a 500-mile circle around them, you see that we are in the area that makes a lot of sense to provide some of the manufacturing,” says Jean Curtiss, Missoula County commissioner and president of BREDD.
Several industrial manufacturers have already voiced interest in opening up shop at the former Stimson mill site. But with no clear idea of the longterm transport potential along Highway 200 and other routes, those companies still consider Bonner a considerable risk. In response, Missoula-based Poteet Construction is heading the effort to identify the best route from Bonner to Canada and determine what work needs to be done to accommodate regular megaload traffic.
The total estimated cost of the transport plan is $35,014. The plan’s scope includes traffic control studies and environmental consultation, as well as identification of any obstacles to oversized shipments. So far, Curtiss says, it looks like the only obstacles will be utility lines.
BREDD’s grant application cites “the ever rising price of oil and the political will to establish energy independence” as the key economic motivations for Missoula courting manufacturers with ties to Canadian oil. The document states that an unnamed company is currently considering occupying nearly half the available space at the former Stimson mill site, and could bring as many as 300 jobs and as much as $20 million in private investment to the area.
Of course, Curtiss acknowledges that there are those in Missoula who would prefer the county oppose any tar sands-related business. Megaload manufacturers aren’t exactly tourist brochure fodder, she says. And oversized transport proposals from major oil players have sparked sizable opposition in the region in recent years. But for Curtiss, interest in Missoula as a gateway to nearby development projects is “kind of a fact of life right now.”