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Picking the bones at Smurfit-Stone

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It was 10:30 in the morning, and the room was swirling with excitement. Roughly 100 people were crowded into a garage at the Smurfit-Stone Mill site, the now-closed Frenchtown paper mill, for an auction of more than 1,000 items. Bikes, boilers, conveyer and hydraulic machinery and even locomotives were for sale, with the profits going to Missoula County.

The county is in the midst of a lawsuit against M2Green Redevelopment. That company purchased the mill site after its closure in 2010 and intended to sell off the property's scrap metal. The county's suit alleges that M2Green failed to pay property taxes on the site, eventually amassing $1.2 million in delinquent debt. As part of an agreement reached between the county and M2Green shortly after the suit was filed, the company agreed to pay the county the profits from this auction.

Similar auctions happen regularly nationwide. Tim Murphy, president of the company that facilitated the auction, James G. Murphy Commercial and Industrial Auctioneers, says his company runs around 120 auctions per year.

Auctions like these present a golden opportunity for businesses and individuals looking to score cheap machinery and other materials that would cost significantly more at retail prices, and the atmosphere was suitably lively. A rotating cast of auctioneers unleashed a torrent of increasingly high bids, speaking at a machine gun's pace while a chorus of increasingly aggressive "yups" emerged from the audience. A conveyer system sold for $77,000 after a heated bidding war less than an hour into the proceedings.

Ray Gombiski, marketing director for James G. Murphy, said the Smurfit site is unique in that the equipment up for auction has applications across many different industries. He said auctions like these benefit companies that otherwise couldn't afford such pricey equipment.

Fledgling businesses weren't the only ones who saw an opportunity at the auction. Clint Cross, 36, travels around the region purchasing industrial supplies to sell on eBay. Traveling from Boise, Idaho, Cross drives to auctions in his truck with a camper attachment and a large trailer to store the fruits of his labor. He said he typically looks for smaller, cheaper items that big spenders aren't necessarily watching for. For this auction, he'd budgeted around $1,500.

"I'm the cleanup guy," Cross said.

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