Citizens' group takes advantage of tourist dollars.



He is the executive director of the Bonner Development Group. He has no real office, yet spends the majority of his time leading the group's efforts to make the town less dependent on the economics of the timber industry. A 20-year love for the Bonner community and sudden economic changes in the small town of about 2,000 souls are the reasons Hall says he decided to take over the reigns of the fledgling organization.

Less than three years old, the group has been successful in all its campaigns thus far. Its first fight began in December 1994, when talk surfaced of plans to move Missoula's prison pre-release center to an abandoned timber company office building. Hall and others formed a committee to fight that facility, and won with the help of massive support from the community.

After that, people began to walk away, Hall says. He explains that he and three others, Al Bellusci, Tim Furey and Gary Matson, decided to follow up on that success with a more permanent group, one which could advocate for the town in the face of a changing economy.

"I guess I created the job because I was nosy," Hall says. After leaving his job as a science teacher at Potomac Elementary, Hall directed the Bonner Development Group as a full-time volunteer for the first year and a half. A $60,000 grant last fall from the Atlantic Richfield Corporation allowed him to continue leading the organization's efforts.

Every time I turned my head, I saw an opportunity," he says. One of those opportunities came along when the Stimson Lumber Company announced in the spring of 1995 that it would appeal its $40 million property tax bill.

Bonner's history as a logging town goes back through the history of the state; the mill and its money built the town and has kept it running for years. When Stimson won its appeal later the same year, the town faced losing its share of those tax dollars, to the tune of $14 million.

But a new symbol of economics in the area helped soften that blow, and its placement in Bonner is due, in part, to the efforts of Hall's organization. Rising above the valley floor to lure drivers from the highway, the 90-foot high combination neon and back-lit plastic of the new Town Pump travel plaza is a monolithic monument to the tourism industry, which is gaining momentum in the regional economy.

Certainly not everybody was pleased with the mega-gas station, but Hall says that in the eyes of the Bonner community, the travel plaza was a better option than the pre-release center. And Bonner school district officials estimate that the plaza has brought in $1.4 million to the tax base of the area.

While Hall says he and other organizers with the Bonner Development group recognize the problems with the plaza, they nonetheless supported bringing the bright lights of the convenience chain to their community. But that doesn't mean, he says, that it's a harbinger for the future.

"I don't think that anyone out here would support something that looks like Reserve Street," he says, referring to Missoula's traffic-choked four-lane strip of gas stations and motels. Hall says that his group gives the community an avenue to get involved and avoid the sort of strip-mauling Missoula has endured.

Community consensus and support are key to deciding what kinds of business the group will support, Hall says. "We invite the people to participate in a public forum to express their viewpoint."

Hall says that one of the organization's primary activities is to inform the community about its options for economic growth, and gather comments about the sorts of development people want to see.

Aesthetic qualities are important, Hall says. Promoting new businesses that maintain the town's flavor, like low buildings with natural, earth-toned exteriors, he says, is what people like.

Hall and the group also have worked to get volunteers and financial support for community projects, like the effort to move a statue of Capt. John Mullan (an army officer who built the area's first road) from Missoula back to a road-side historical site along the Blackfoot River in Bonner, where it was originally dedicated early in the century.

The latest Bonner Development Group project concerns another of the area's landmarks.

Hall is coordinating efforts to develop the Milltown Dam Reservoir into a "recreational and educational resource." The reservoir lies at the lower end of the nation's largest Superfund toxic waste site, and is noted as the resting place for an estimated 4.6 million cubic yards of contaminants from the state's mining history.

Recreational opportunities in general could be a base for growing Bonner's economy, Hall asserts, and the reservoir and surrounding wetlands could play a part.

Ironically, the corporation that gave the Development Group its grant, ARCO, is the same company being sued by the state over clean-up costs for the mine tailings in the Clark Fork River drainage. Hall says that thus far, the corporation has not made any efforts to interfere with the group's agenda.

"We don't try to hide anything," Hall says. He explains that the state encouraged the organization to get the funding to help ensure its survival.

Hall says he knows that the group walks a thin line between using a slow political system and becoming a part of it. He wants the group to avoid getting bogged down in the bureaucracy and red-tape of government. And he also says he realizes that the same line runs between the group's source of funding and the corporate interests behind it.

Hall maintains that his organization will remain independent, with its loyalties lying with Bonner's economy and environment.

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