Company town

Missoula real estate developer Scott Cooney now owns much of the land and 42 of the homes that constitute the town of Bonner. So what’s his plan?

Scott Cooney’s hauling ass through Hellgate Canyon in his big black Suburban—a menacing mountain monster with dark privacy windows and a shiny ski container on top—cruising somewhere between 85 and 90 miles per hour.

A tall, blond-haired guy in his mid-40s, Cooney sits comfortably in his seat wearing jeans, boots, zip-top sweatshirt, and a pair of nice sunglasses, even though it’s a foggy day in Missoula, and little light breaks through the clouds until we head farther east. As we exit Interstate 90 near Milltown, he slows the vehicle well below the posted limit and continues a light-hearted discussion about his ideas for the area people mistakenly call Bonner.

 “Some of these people here want to see another one of these, and twice as big,” he says, pointing up toward the mill site owned by Stimson Lumber Co. “I don’t support that. I don’t think that’s progressive. That’s not the future.”

After purchasing Stimson’s 116-acre west log yard just weeks ago and buying up 42 nearby homes, including a tract of former company units across from the mill, Cooney took center stage in a pressing debate about Bonner’s future. With key pieces of local real estate under his control, Cooney can decisively influence whether the historic settlements at the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers retain the industrial character they’ve proudly maintained for over a century, or become a hub for commercial development and recreation on the banks of the restored waterways.
Cooney’s affable demeanor balances out his obvious intensity. He consistently conveys a well-developed train of thought and shows a tendency to finish sentences, paragraphs, and ideas fully and completely. He seems capable of organizing tremendous psychological resources to bear upon a thing—a project, a person, a conversation, or a thought. He seems to enjoy giving his full concentration and complete energy to whatever attracts his attention.

“I pour myself into it,” Cooney says of his projects. “It’s the game I guess. It’s more of a vision–creating a goal and a vision, and then trying to attain it.

 “Money isn’t the driving force of anything I do. It’s a by-product—a consideration in the analytical portion of the project,” he says.

“Ultimately, I have to prove to the bankers and the financiers that it’s worthwhile, but it’s more of the goal of creating something. Not a legacy, just more of creating a project and making it successful.”

The son of a Missoula neurologist, Cooney says he started his first business in 1980 at the age of 20. His neighbors ran a low-key painting operation using a Buick Skylark they’d equipped with ski racks to hold the ladders and a paint-sprayer in the trunk. Cooney purchased the rig for around $3,000 and created Rainglow painters. Within two months, his staff ballooned to 20 employees as he carved out a lucrative niche by crossing picket lines to take over formerly union jobs.

“That’s when unions were more widespread than they are now,” Cooney remembers. “We were just kids, probably not real knowledgeable of the consequences or the reasoning behind it.”

Missoula billionaire Dennis Washington let the young entrepreneur crash at his Grant Creek property in exchange for painting services, but kicking back at home was low on Cooney’s list of priorities as he quickly expanded his business into large-scale industrial cleaning projects—mostly Washington’s.

“[Washington] was 90% of our business, which was too much,” Cooney recalls.

Cooney says that over time, he became a sort of project man, the go-to guy for cleaning up the worst messes at the lowest cost. Toughened by teenage experiences in the oil fields of Wyoming, Cooney hardly balked when the grimiest jobs came his way, and eventually he came to specialize in them.

His job sites resembled sci-fi movie sets, where colossal 175-ton trucks park next to a towering tong-like cranes that chomp away at entire locomotives the way a dog gnaws sideways on a piece of sausage, biting it piece by piece. Oil pipelines, railroad cars, industrial dumpsites, and idle timber mills were like giant sandboxes where Cooney’s teams tore down, repainted, or cleaned out dilapidated structures and unwanted debris.

With all of Washington’s business pouring in, Cooney’s successful business provided the resources to branch out into real estate investing. “I started buying real estate at 18,” he says. “I wanted to buy one house each year, as a side to the business.”

Since then, Cooney’s real estate portfolio has included dozens of commercial and residential properties in Missoula that he has bought and sold. He says his acquisitions include former residences of Sen. Max Baucus and artist Monte Dolack, as well as prominent downtown properties like Sushi Hana’s current digs at Higgins Ave. and Spruce St. and the First Security Bank building on Broadway.

Just as Cooney saw his career blossoming, a frightening car accident interfered. According to Cooney, his second wife fell asleep at the wheel of their Toyota 4-Runner, sending the vehicle into a high-speed rollover on I-90 near Clinton. The crash threw Cooney from the vehicle, and he suffered multiple bone fractures. The injuries confined him to a wheelchair off and on for over two years.

“They said, ‘You’ll never walk again,’” Cooney recalls, smiling, “I’m just not of that mindset. You tell me  ‘no,’ and it’s like when I was 17. ‘No’ means ‘yes.’ I’m going to do the exact opposite. It’s a life-changing event.”

To this day, Cooney continues protracted surgical regimens, having undergone more than 20 procedures since the accident 16 years ago. But his ongoing trials with physical therapy barely impeded his progress in business. He says he took daily trips in his wheelchair from his Rattlesnake home to his office downtown and slowly retooled his company to capitalize on the newest emerging market: failing timber mills.

“Then came the fall of the timber industry,” Cooney remembers, “We started bidding on tear-down jobs at lumber mills all over the northwest. Nearly every tear-down in Montana, Wyoming, and Washington, was probably one of ours.”

During this period Cooney set his sights on Bonner, where he saw something his contemporaries didn’t.

“People asked me about Bonner,” Cooney recalls, “Who’s going to live there? Who would live out there?’

“I just thought, ‘Well, you just don’t see it.’”

With Stimson announcing a temporary shutdown of its Bonner mill and the layoff of 100 employees this month, and cranes demolishing the antiquated Milltown dam, there’s no mistaking the advanced decline of the area’s historic lynchpins. With the economic foundations crumbling, residents feel threatened by a redevelopment process that seems dominated by politicians, bureaucrats, and a city down the road that doesn’t acknowledge its existence.

As an interloper with a vested interest, Cooney says he’s listening carefully to the locals to help him set a course for their future. But what he hears tells him more about what they don’t want than what they do. They don’t want things to change too much, and they don’t want to become a suburb.

“This group out here is pretty unified under the basic core principal of ‘we don’t want to be Missoula, we want to be who we are out here,’” Cooney says.

To protect Bonner’s heritage, Cooney purchased 42 of the town’s original homes from Stimson, saving them from certain doom at the steel bucket-edge of a bulldozer. By moving the homes to an empty tract across the street, Cooney hopes to lay the groundwork to maintain the area’s unique cultural identity.

“Regardless of what anyone does, I am going to do a national historic district,” he says, “and I’m going to save another 15 homes.”

Local residents like the idea, which demonstrates Cooney’s appreciation for their town’s distinct cultural identity, which few outside the area–particularly in Missoula—seem to care about.

Ken Peers, a lifelong Milltown resident who talks with Cooney frequently, thinks most people down the road in Missoula have no clue about his neighborhood’s historic character.

“Every little section out here identifies themselves separately,” he explains.

To locals, Bonner is only the small area directly surrounding the mill site along Highway 200; Cooney now owns most of it. Drive south a couple blocks to the Bonner School, and you’ve reached the end of town. Head left, paralleling Interstate 90, and you’ll pass the Piltzville Fire Station. If you instead head west, across the train tracks, you enter Milltown, which surrounds the dam site and Town Pump truck stop. Continue west toward Missoula, and you’re in West Riverside, also called Finntown. Further west toward East Missoula, drive by Pinegrove on your way to Marshall Canyon. Representing a far flung collection of ethnicities –Finnish, Swedish, German, Irish, French, Norwegian—each of these communities knows a slightly different story about the area’s history, and each feels they have a distinct voice.

Yet outsiders frequently overlook these subtleties, noticing only the community’s proximity to Missoula.

“A lot of people that move in assume that we’re a suburb of Missoula,” says Bob Griel, a life-long Pinegrove resident. “It’s actually an older development than Missoula itself.”

Griel and Peers both sit on the newly formed Bonner Community Council, which holds well-attended monthly meetings to air concerns about the dramatic changes in store for the area. The five-member group recently appointed by the Missoula County Commission now offers input to Cooney and the county government on zoning, highway maintenance, and land-use planning.

Cooney maintains close relations with the Council members and regularly attends meetings. Most recently, he’s helped the Council formulate a first-of-its kind community benefits agreement, and solicited feedback on the possibility of building an independent water and sewer system. His participation encourages the unincorporated community to develop democratic habits, encouraging locals to exert some control over their own future.

But discussion can lead to disagreement, and with residents of several distinct neighborhoods promoting their own priorities, Cooney worries that constructive dialogue could devolve into needless conflict. If area residents can’t find a unified voice, he fears they could lose their voice altogether.

“I want these people to say ‘no’ to Missoula, to keep them at arm’s length,” he says. “Stay separate. Keep your autonomy.”

Independence brings up the thorny question of sewer services, and whether locals want their own system or prefer hook up with the City of Missoula. Sewer service currently extends only as far as East Missoula.

“You bring sewer out here, and it can be negative” he says. “They will dissolve into nothing. They don’t want to live in Missoula, and they don’t represent Missoula. It’s Bonner, Milltown, Piltzville, West Riverside, and all the other smaller communities. That’s what they want.”

By and large, locals feel gratified by Cooney’s willingness to bounce his development decisions off of them, and they feel at ease voicing concerns to him directly.

“He’s trying to look out for the best interests of everybody,” says Lacy Henderson, a stay-at-home mom living in one of Cooney’s newly acquired homes, “I’m more secure talking to him now, instead of listening to rumors.”

In a town where several residents spoke only on the condition of anonymity, fearing as one did that “with a snap of a finger across the street, I could lose my job and my house,” Cooney’s ability to connect and establish a collaborative atmosphere could prove crucial to making progress.

“He’s not a rich snob. He’s in touch with us,” says Gary Matson, another Community Council member and long-time West Riverside resident. “He understands where we are, and I think, identifies with ordinary human life.”

Other prominent residents agree that Cooney’s done a good job making himself approachable.

“I think Scott being from Montana helps,” says Bonner School Principal and District 14 Superintendent Doug Ardiana. “It’s not an out-of-state developer.”

He offers Cooney’s mobile phone number, saying, “He usually responds right away.”

Although Cooney’s long-term plans for his recently acquired acreage at the west log yard remain vague, his choices will likely be guided by two competing visions for the Bonner area’s future. The removal of the Milltown dam and the restoration of the contaminated streambeds behind it have inspired talk of creating an attractive recreation area or even a state park. But some people hope to maintain the industrial character of the past, perhaps utilizing Stimson’s
existing mill for some other, cleaner, more appealing high-tech manufacturing.

Dick King, president of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corporation, says he’s actively recruiting manufacturing businesses to relocate in Bonner, trying to sell them on the advantages of the existing industrial infrastructure.

“We’re not talking about dirty industry, big smokestack companies here,” King says. “We’re talking about hi-tech manufacturing.”

He mentions wood products research, aircraft fuselage assembly, and wind turbine manufacture as the sort of light industrial ventures he’d like to attract.

King sees the existing infrastructure–rail lines, electricity, an interstate highway, and a bountiful water source—as valuable economic resources begging for productive use, especially when combined with the ready labor pool of former mill workers. 

Plenty of residents agree. “It’s ideal, we’ve got a railroad that runs in here. We’ve got an interstate highway that goes by here,” says Community Council member Peers. “If they don’t take advantage of this they’re going to lose a great asset.”

But others would prefer to turn the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork rivers into a hub for recreation and light commercial development, transforming the once-contaminated dam site into a state park where a network of trails, interpretive centers, and natural vegetation entice kayakers, tubers, and fishermen to spend the day and play. Theoretically, commerce would follow the visitors, property values would rise, and opportunities for fun, rather than industrial infrastructure, would drive growth.

The Milltown Redevelopment Working Group, appointed by Missoula County Commissioners to help guide reclamation work, has already completed a collection of sketches outlining the vision. The sketches, titled “Milltown Park,” the “Confluence,” and “Milltown Gateway,” envision a network of trails connecting numerous river access sites with surrounding restored vegetation, vaulted toilets, playgrounds, information kiosks, picnic tables, and pavilions. 

Proponents extol the potential to lure new recreational business–restaurants, outfitters, Cabela’s, or maybe even an outlet mall. But others decry the empty promise of minimum-wage jobs at the bottom end of the retail service sector, arguing that an industrial economy would provide better work, and better stability for the community.

“This is the vanishing of middle-America right across the street,” school principle Ardiana says, pointing out his office window to the Stimson mill just a few yards away. “Those were good-paying jobs that are going to be lost to the service industry. And I’m not real in favor of all-service or all-commercial service industry jobs out here.”

Some locals worry that a developed recreational area would attract the rowdy crowds that flock to the Blackfoot every summer and overrun Johnsrud Park up-river, where unruly drunks leave their empties in the water and carelessly toss cigarettes into the grass.

“We’ve got enough trouble with Johnsrud Park,” Peers says. “People just aren’t very tidy when they float our rivers, and we’re just afraid the same thing’s going to happen here.”

But once cleanup crews complete the restoration work and restore the riverbeds behind the Milltown dam, summer crowds could come floating into town regardless of anybody’s wishes, prompting Matson to argue in favor of some kind of recreational management, if only to gain some control over the hoi polloi.

“The only thing you can say to those people worried about the ‘Johnsrudization’ of Bonner is that it’s probably going to happen anyway,” Matson, a proponent of the ideas says, “so if we get engaged early on in the process…we can make those impacts minimal or prepare for them, instead of having them hoisted upon us.”

To Cooney, both of the competing visions make sense, but he says they need clarity. Part of his emphasis on local autonomy and his encouragement of the Community Council’s work stems from his desire for a clear vision. Only then, he says, can he move forward on his plans.

“It’ll fail otherwise,” he says matter-of-factly, “It’ll flat-out be a failure without the community participating. It’ll be a negative thing for them.”
Rebuilding Bonner after its fabled landmarks have toppled will require bold thinking. But as many local residents point out, change is inevitable. The challenge comes in forging a cohesive image of the community’s identity within an evolving picture.

Cooney recognizes the difficulty in unifying the competing interests around a vision that preserves the community’s distinct industrial heritage, rural lifestyle, and sense of place. He’s no social scientist, and despite his winning personality, he’s no politician either. Yet he’s waded into the murky waters of local politics, muddied by acute anxiety about the future.

Cooney’s plans will no doubt face challenges, misunderstandings, and criticism from locals. But like the neighborhoods surrounding the mill, he has faced disastrous misfortune before, and come back strong. His ambitious real estate venture could prove successful, regardless of the course he follows.

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