Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Looking to keep a struggling mill in Seeley Lake from closing for good, Missoula County may look to steer a one-time state grant toward the operation.

Commissioners and the county’s grant administrators met Monday to discuss the parameters of a Community Development Block Grant earmarked for economic development toward Pyramid Mountain Lumber, which announced its plans to close earlier this year.

The county has been receiving the state funds periodically since the mid 1980s and has traditionally applied them to for-profit businesses that promote economic development, job growth and job training. While the county can award the funding as a grant or a loan, it has generally opted for low-interest loans while using the resulting revenue to build up a revolving loan fund.

“That revenue has been spent down and the county is now eligible for additional funding,” said grants administrator Heidi West. “These all have to be either job retention or creation grants, or job training.”

The City of Missoula in 1999 also became an entitlement community, allowing it to apply for its own block grants. After that period, the county began directing its award to organizations outside city limits.

County officials are inclined to keep it that way, they said Monday.

“We’re always getting criticized for being a funnel where all the money flows into the city,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “I would be inclined to prioritize areas of Missoula County outside the city limits.”

Looking to direct the revenue for economic development outside city limits, Strohmaier suggested the county apply the funding to keep Pyramid Mountain Lumber open in Seeley Lake.

The Missoula Economic Partnership earlier this month said a potential buyer, or group of buyers, is interested in the mill and securing ownership. While no other details have been offered, Strohmaier said the county could direct the grant toward that potential change in ownership.

Strohmaier said $500,000 could move the dial in the discussion.

“There’s discussions going on as we speak to figure out how to do something with the wood-products industry in Seeley that’s going to require workforce training and all of that,” he said. “It’s an acute, time-sensitive need right now. The parties involved in the discussion would be keenly interested in seeing if this is an option.”

Funding guidelines

Before the city became an entitlement community of its own, the county had applied for the state funds to support projects in both the city and county. That practice ended when the city began receiving its own state funding, at which point the county focused specifically on projects outside city limits.

However, grants administrator Melissa Gordon said the city doesn’t use its funding for economic development, as the county is inclined to do. That could place pressure on the county to support economic development in the city, spreading the funding thin.

“We do have two active requests on the table from local (city) nonprofits for assistance, so it’s important how we craft this program and how the county approaches this funding,” Gordon said. “The city is no longer using entitlement funding to support economic development projects. The county will be looked at as a source of support for future economic development projects, including projects in the city.”

While the closure of Pyramid will likely have steep impacts on the town of Seeley Lake, it may also have wider ripple effects on the state and national level, including the area of forest health and stewardship. The county is likely to establish a policy regarding its use of its funds and whether they should go to organizations outside the city only, and if they’re issued as a grant or a loan.

“We’d like to craft some recommendations or general policy. This will be helpful when we’re receiving request for assistance from different agencies,” said Gordon. “I think there’s new and different opportunities to work with the state’s economic development department and the new director there and doing more intensive work in different areas.”

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