Speculation is circling the Louisiana-Pacific sawmill site here like hungry loggers around stacks of flapjacks.
When the lumber mill closes within the next month, Post Falls’ oldest business will be gone.
Its demise, however, could mean a rebirth for this river city’s downtown.
“There’s probably no other city in America today that has 50 to 60 acres of property downtown, on the riverfront, on one of the most heavily traveled freeways in the U.S.,” said Post Falls businessman Bob Templin.
What will fill the void?
“It won’t be a sawmill on that site, I can tell you that much,” said L-P’s regional operations manager, Dirk Fledderjohann.
The property will be sold, he said. Beyond that, no one knows.
Whatever happens, Templin and others hope Post Falls’ origins are considered.
Town founder Frederick Post built a mill on the site in 1871. It also is next door to the closest thing Post Falls has to a downtown.
For those who complain Post Falls has no downtown and no identity, city leaders hope to re-create what once was the original town center.
“We’d like to see it come together and be a downtown that is the core of Post Falls that connects Falls Park with Q’emlin,” said Councilman Scott Grant.
Possibilities for downtown Post Falls seem endless, except for one.
“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d like the mill to go back the way it was 10 years ago,” said Dale James, owner of Handy Mart, a gas station and convenience store across Spokane Street from the mill.
What the town needs is jobs like the 113 good-paying ones lost by the mill’s closure, he said.
“Now we’re full of banks and convenience stores and restaurants,” James said, chuckling at his own niche in the service industry. “That provides some needs, but to be solid, we need those high-paying jobs.”
Mayor Jim Hammond admits feeling like a vulture circling over the mill’s demise when talking about the chances for downtown development.
“On the positive side, it gives the city a bigger chunk of property to plan with,” he said. “I’d like to replace those jobs with other jobs on that site.”
Professional offices could help bring high-paying jobs, he said.
The Urban Renewal Commission already includes the L-P site in its long-term plans. At a recent workshop, discussion lingered over opportunities at the site.
Open space, public access to the river, high-tech industry, a pedestrian-oriented commercial area and other ideas were discussed.
“I don’t think we can ever create a core downtown like other cities, where their downtown is 100 years old and their city grew out from that,” said commissioner Skip Hissong. “We’ve never had that. Maybe we can create something that’s a 20th century version of that.”
Such a downtown needs people to live and work within it, the commission was told by Post Falls urban planner Walter Cairns.
Cairns suggested using money from tax increment financing to create the mix needed for a successful pedestrian-oriented downtown.
By creating an urban renewal district, the commission can collect the taxes from new growth to pay for infrastructure needs or public amenities, such as parking and open space.
“We could buy a block and then find a developer to develop that land as we’d like to see it developed,” Cairns said.
While visionaries think big, downtown residents and business owners think pragmatically. In an unscientific survey of those who work and live downtown, they overwhelmingly named street improvements their top priority.
Practical matters ultimately will steer the future of the sawmill site and downtown.
Although outgoing council member Karen Streeter says she would like to see clean industry on the site, economics dictates that industry most likely will locate elsewhere.
City officials estimate the property to be worth $12 million to $15 million. L-P’s Fledderjohann said he doesn’t know its value. The company’s official spokesman was unavailable for comment.
“Why would you put a manufacturing plant there when you can get ground a lot cheaper” elsewhere? asked Bob Potter, president of Jobs Plus, Kootenai County’s economic development agency.
More suitable uses would be retail, high-end commercial and recreation-oriented, he said.
Hammond said two investors have
expressed interest in the property. He would not divulge their names.
“Whoever buys it will have to have access to a lot of financial strength,” Potter said.
One concern is the possibility of an expensive environmental cleanup. Fledderjohann said he’s unaware of any major problems. The mill never chemically treated its wood, the cause of most sawmill environmental woes, he said.
The state Division of Environmental Quality is overseeing cleanup of a hydraulic fluid and oil spill on the site. The agency hasn’t found any other serious contamination.
Whatever redevelopment occurs, it must be market-driven, Templin said. And the best bet is to capitalize on the second-largest industry in the nation - travel and tourism.
Fresh from the first White House Conference on Travel and Tourism, Templin is eager to share facts and figures to back that up.
Although Post Falls has a glut of hotel rooms, Templin believes a destination resort and convention center would work at the old mill site, even with his resort next door.
He dispelled the rumor that Tem plin and Associates is looking to buy the property. But he did say he would work with a future developer to integrate his downtown project with a project on the mill site.
As for Templin’s 10 acres on downtown Spokane Street, he has no intention of changing the project’s name from Milltown.
The mill’s closure is “all the more reason to stick with Milltown,” Templin said.
The proposal for Milltown has changed from a motel and restaurant to professional offices, a micro-brewery restaurant and shops.
Templin believes the working town’s history and cultural heritage is the key to its economic future.
History buffs and city leaders hope Louisiana-Pacific or the buyer of the property will provide some land or a relic from the mill for a historical interpretive center.
“History can provide valuable lessons in how a town survives and how people cope with change,” said Kim Brown, president of the Post Falls Historical Society.
Brown, like many other Post Falls residents, still is mourning the loss of the mill, which has been a fixture of “Idaho’s Biggest Little City” since anyone can remember.
“It was like a thread to our past, a little piece of permanence,” she said. “But that’s what history’s all about - change.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo Map of area