In early October, Stinger Welding Montana Inc. workers drove two flatbed trucks into the massive, and now unused, bridge beam factory at the Kootenai Business Park in Libby. Over the next few days, they carefully loaded the components of a 25-ton crane, including two 92-foot long bridge beams, on to the trucks.
On the morning of Oct. 16, under the cover of darkness, the employees opened the doors of the factory and the two trucks slipped away to Coolidge, Ariz. According to the Lincoln County Port Authority, only one early riser saw the trucks leave. Up until that point, no one knew Stinger was planning on taking the cranes, which are currently at the heart of a legal battle between the welding company and Lincoln County.
“It’s an enclosed building so they could have been having a circus in there and we wouldn’t have known,” said Allan Payne, an attorney for the port authority. “(But) if you know you have a right to do something, you don’t do it in the middle of the night.”
Payne and the port authority say the 25-ton crane, one of seven once used by Stinger Welding, is the property of Lincoln County because it was purchased with state grants meant to benefit the local economy.
Stinger apparently thinks otherwise, but isn’t saying much.
“I’m sure no one here is going to comment on that,” a man said at Stinger’s Arizona headquarters before hanging up last week.
On Nov. 1, Payne filed a temporary restraining order against Stinger preventing its employees from entering the port authority’s property and taking the other cranes, which they had planned to do, according to Lincoln County Sherriff Roby Bowe. A hearing will be held in district court on Nov. 14.
“They’re trying to move stuff to Arizona and put it out of our reach,” Payne said. “The immediate thing is making sure the other cranes don’t follow the first one to Arizona.”
Legal disputes are nothing new between Stinger and Lincoln County. In 2009, the two signed a development agreement to bring a bridge beam building facility to Libby that would eventually employ more than 200 people. But problems arose almost immediately.
Part of the agreement stated that Stinger would construct a large welding facility on the old Stimson Lumber Co. site and, once complete, the port authority would purchase it at the cost of construction and lease it back. However, Stinger failed to obtain the funding for the facility’s construction and in July 2009, the county provided a $3.4 million grant to the company to start the project. Payne said at that point, the port authority still planned on purchasing the facility from Stinger, minus the $3.4 million.
Stinger completed the building in May 2011. In hopes of repaying loans, Stinger sought funding through the New Market Tax Credits program. During that process, according to the lawsuit, Stinger allegedly misled the port authority by claiming it needed the title to the property it occupied. On July 18, 2011, the port authority conveyed the title to Stinger for $186,000.
A year later, in October 2012, the Lincoln County Port Authority filed a lawsuit alleging that Stinger failed to comply with the 2009 development agreement and that the building belonged to the county. Then on Dec. 18, 2012, Stinger Welding CEO Carl Douglas died in a plane crash near Libby. The company went into bankruptcy soon after and it closed its Libby bridge building facility earlier this year.
According to Payne and Kootenai River Development Council executive director Paul Rumelhart, there were still a few Stinger employees and contractors in Libby who were cleaning up the site and removing their own equipment.
“We were just being accommodating to a former client and they took advantage of that,” Payne said.
The development council’s deputy director, Brigid Burke, said the port authority has been in contact with Fisher Sand and Gravel, the current owner of Stinger Welding, and they hope to resolve the issue soon.
“I would think both parties would like to come to an agreement outside of court,” she said.
According to Stinger employees in Libby, the final destination for the crane is Arizona. But the man who built it, Carl Chenery of Konecranes, doesn’t know what they plan on doing with it. According to him, unless they make major modifications to a crane, it’s tough to reinstall one.
“You’ll rarely find two runway systems that are the same size,” he said.
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