More than a week after Libby’s last wood manufacturing plant burned to the ground, the community is looking to pick up the pieces.
The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office has determined there was no foul play involved with a fire that destroyed SK Fingerjoint, Inc. at the Kootenai Business Park on Nov. 5. Undersheriff Brandon Huff said his office has concluded its investigation into the fire, and at this time the insurance company and law enforcement believe the blaze was probably the result of an electrical issue.
Tina Oliphant, executive director of the Lincoln County Port Authority that was leasing the old Stimson Lumber Co. finger jointer facility to SK Fingerjoint, said the insurance company is still working on evaluating the site.
Oliphant said it is unclear how the fire will impact SK Fingerjoint, which prior to the fire employed 17 people making jointed lumber pieces.
Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck said the fire was “devastating” to a community that has already been dealt many economic blows in recent years. Logging and mining jobs once propped up Lincoln County’s economy, but over the years those industries have left the area. Today, Lincoln County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. SK Fingerjoint was among one of the few bright spots in Libby, and represented the only remaining mill jobs in town.
“We have so few manufacturing jobs in Lincoln County, so to take a blow like this is really tough,” Peck said. “We finally had something good happen and then, boom, it’s gone.”
The fire came just three days before the port authority was set to host a ribbon cutting to celebrate the completion of an effort to rebuild a rail spur into the Kootenai Business Park. The celebration was canceled, but an economic development meeting went on as planned on Nov. 9. Oliphant said the meeting was productive in figuring out how to get the local economy “unstuck.”
She also said the Port Authority announced at the meeting that it had come to an agreement with Fisher Industries to sell the former Stinger Welding facility at the business park. Stinger Welding produced steel girders in the 100,000-square-foot building from 2011 until 2012, when the company’s owner, Carl Douglas, died in a plane crash. All of the company’s assets were sold out of bankruptcy to Fisher Industries in 2013, but the building was not included as part of that initial purchase because of an ongoing legal dispute with the Port Authority, which had invested heavily in its construction. A settlement was recently signed to determine how the proceeds of the sale would be distributed, and Oliphant said the port authority and Fisher Industries are optimistic that they will find a buyer who will “invest in Libby.”
Developments like the sale of the former Stinger building are why local officials have not given up hope for Libby’s economic future.
“We’re a tough town,” Peck said. “We’ll come back from this fire.”