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Resiliant Priest River Bouncing Back

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The closure of JD Lumber won't keep this little town down

The sale and closure of the JD Lumber Company sawmill in Priest River was the biggest news story to come out of west Bonner County this past August. A headline in an out-of-town newspaper portrayed the county’s second largest city as a “Lumber town in limbo” and painted a “bleak” picture of its future. One resident was even quoted as predicting that “half this town will move.”

But is the situation really all that dismal? Not to Jim Martin, Priest River’s young and progressive mayor, and not, as far as one can judge at the present time, to the majority of the town’s residents. Yes, the loss of those approximately 200 jobs will hurt, no one’s disputing that. The night shift didn’t even get the two months’ continued employment that was promised when the sale and closure were announced, having been laid off not more than three weeks later. The reason given was market conditions.

Martin continues to feel the aforementioned newspaper story was both overly negative and unduly discouraging to the affected employees, and responded via his town’s newspaper, the Times. “I have lived in Priest River for all of my nearly 40 years,” he said, “... long enough to see mills close due to the poor lumber market, buyouts, and others due to fire. In every case, someone from outside of the area would come to town and claim that the town was finished, going to dry up, become a ghost town. And in each case, the town survived with its resilient attitude, hard work and determination.”

Martin repeated those words in a recent interview, adding that the city is looking at economic initiatives that it can undertake to address the downturn in the employment picture. He is involving himself personally in the effort to attract new business and industry, instead of relying entirely on the efforts of the Priest River Development Corporation, he said. Since 1980, PRDC has been the recruiter bringing new and diversified businesses to the community. The industrial park west of town that the organization spent years developing is currently almost filled to capacity.

Since the JD closure announcement, a scout for a business capable of employing 50 to 75 people has visited Priest River, Martin revealed, and plans a return visit with a view toward a possible move of his business to town. In addition, a representative of a smaller business was expected at the end of the second week in September, as this story was being written. That company could absorb another 25 to 30 employees, according to Martin, while even smaller business owners needing no more than four or five employees have expressed an interest. “They don’t have the labor force but like the area; we’ve got the people,” Martin added.

The city has also been talking to the regional director of the Department of Commerce exploring grant possibilities. The current site where Stimson Lumber Company loads box cars at the railroad does not make for an efficient operation, Martin said, so the city is working with the railroad to correct the situation and help the mill continue to operate. In addition to the jobs lost at JD, Stimson has been operating for months without a night shift, which further adds to the unemployment problem.

Martin is also optimistic that the retraining being offered through the Department of Commerce and Labor will help a number of the employees, even though the program does not cover living expenses for families while the breadwinner is being retrained. “Some people look at the glass as being half empty,” he said; “If they are going to be laid off anyway, it is a great opportunity for some to get job retraining.”

When the PRDC began its revitalization efforts almost 30 years ago, Priest River was sunk in the depths of a severe national recession much worse than the current downturn is so far. The town has come a long way since then. Its physical appearance has been dramatically improved, and much hard work and expense have gone into improving the town’s deteriorating infrastructure.

The largest building in the downtown area, originally known as the Beardmore Block, is almost at the end of an extensive and extremely expensive restoration carried out by Brian Runberg. Runberg has scheduled an upcoming open house to show off the completed building (minus the theater on the north side, which has yet to be addressed). The Seattle architect is the great-grandson of the man responsible for the Beardmore’s construction in 1922, timber entrepreneur Charles Beardmore.

The former Napa Auto Parts building, now called Seven Planet, on the southwest corner of Main and High streets, directly across High from the Beardmore, has been transformed into an attractive internet café. “They’ve done a beautiful job,” Martin said of owner Leif Youngberg and Gary Dickson, the manager. The business will also feature the work of local crafts people, Dickson said, as long as the crafts fit in with the business’s environmental emphasis.

AJ’s Café has also been spruced up—as has the library, which now has a beautiful façade and landscaping, and a pretty nice interior, too. Other improvements to the town’s appearance have been effected over the years as well; therefore, Martin feels the description of downtown in the newspaper story as “a collection of ragtag antique stores with torn awnings,” was a far cry from an accurate appraisal of what his city looks like today.

Thanks to the joint efforts of Runberg, Youngberg, and Dickson, Priest River will have an Oktoberfest celebration on October 4 in conjunction with the open houses the three are planning at their buildings. Portions of the downtown streets will be blocked off for the event. Martin said there will be music all day, and street vendors. “This grand opening event will give the Beardmore Block and Seven Planet building an opportunity for the community to see the completed restorations and for the owners to reintroduce these beautiful buildings to the historic downtown.”

Runberg added, “The Oktoberfest celebration is a symbolic inauguration for a new chapter for the downtown.” Just as important, he added, the Beardmore Building is adding four new tenants before year’s end.

So… is Priest River in danger of dying off like some endangered wildlife species? No way say those who love the place. The town has faced and overcome too many hard knocks in its more than a century of existence to give up now. In the mayor’s words, “There’s too much positive going on.”

One new business, the Hardwood Grill, opened “uptown” about the time the JD closure was announced, in a refurbished building on Highway 2. So far, it appears to be thriving.

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Marylyn Cork

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