The former Stimson sawmill is finally out of the chop shop. Sorry, off the auction block. Honest mistake.

After 15 years of ownership through one of the most fruitful periods in U.S. housing market history—and six months after the same market’s downturn left the Oregon company without an industrial buyer—Stimson Lumber Co. sold the property to Missoula developer Scott Cooney late last month. News of the deal wasn’t so much released, but just kind of leaked out at a Bonner community meeting at the end of January.

Cooney has plans for the property—big plans, including plenty of mixed-use development and some green building practices. It’s the same plan he had when he made a $16 million offer on the property nine months ago. So what took Stimson so long to bite?

“I really can’t talk about the specifics of the deal,” Cooney says, citing a confidentiality clause built into the agreement.

That’s all right, because we have a pretty good idea about the deal already.

The Bonner mill opened in 1886, operating continuously until last May. It almost certainly generated quite a bit of environmental liability throughout its history—not the least of which is the cooling pond contaminated with PCBs that the Department of Environmental Quality pointed out in 2008. If you believe former millers, activists and public health officials, we’re almost certain to find more problems as rocks and earth turn under the bulldozer. Stimson wanted an industrial buyer—the company said as much—but many wondered if the reason was to evade liability on some of the site’s messes.

“We’ve never had an agreement before this,” says Jeff Webber, Stimson’s vice president. “Of course the cooling pond and environmental issues surrounding that added some complication, but it’s been an ongoing process and we’ve now finally got it wrapped up. That’s really all there is to it.”

To be fair, the public doesn’t know what the company’s intention was in the sale or during any of the 15 years it owned the mill. But consider the chronology: Stimson bought the facility off Champion in 1993 for a song, enjoyed profits under a mighty housing bubble and shut down long before anyone else in the industry folded in the subsequent downturn. Now it has essentially cashed out by liquidating the Bonner property and all of the equipment, while remaining comfortably perched upon 100,000 acres of developable forestland.

Here’s a bit of free street wisdom: If you walk outside and find your car on cinder blocks and the stereo pulled out, it’s not because of a lack of low-elevation timber.
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