Former lumber town sees new opportunity
Potlatch, Idaho, a former timber town tucked up against the Clearwater National Forest, hopes to use its history and culture to recruit a new kind of business: gun manufacturers.
The city plans to advertise its old mill site as an ideal location for firearms-related manufacturing and other outdoor recreation companies. There’s even room for gun- or hunting-themed shops and residential development.
“Idaho is a firearms-friendly state,” said David Brown, mayor of Potlatch, which has 804 residents. “I realize that it will take some time and money to happen, but it’s a beautiful dream and I believe so strongly that it will happen.”
The 145-acre site along the Palouse River has been vacant since 1981, when Potlatch Corp. closed the town’s namesake mill.
About 18 months ago, city leaders and economic development specialists began brainstorming ways to bring industry back to Potlatch, which morphed into a bedroom community to the university towns of Moscow and Pullman after the mill’s closure.
Inspiration struck when ammunition manufacturer PNW Arms relocated from Issaquah, Wash., to an area two miles north of Potlatch.
Guns just seemed like a natural fit, said Gary White, a marketing consultant working with city officials and Potlatch Corp., which still owns the mill site.
Hunting and target shooting are part of the North Idaho lifestyle, White noted. In addition, Idaho is among a handful of states that actively recruits firearms companies. State laws place limits on the ability to sue Idaho-based firearms or ammunitions manufacturers and recover damages.
“The culture was just right for this vision,” said BJ Swanson, the Latah Economic Development Council’s executive director. “We felt that we could make this one successful.”
Efforts to revitalize the mill site are part of a longer-term investment in Potlatch, which was built as a company town to process high-value western white pine from the surrounding forest, she said.
The city has restored its old rail depot, which houses the town’s museum, and built a park with walking trails and camping hookups.
Bernardo Wills Architects of Spokane is working on the design for the old mill site, along with Welch Comer, a Coeur d’Alene engineering firm.
Potlatch was one of the nation’s first planned communities, with the company putting up 250 buildings, including housing for its workers, a department store and opera house. Plans for the old mill site suggest incorporating architectural features from some of the old buildings, said Dell Hatch, a landscape architect for Bernardo Wills.
The plans also call for walking trails and interpretative signs along marshy areas by the Palouse River, which are too wet to be developed.
“When those people make these great big pretty drawings, you get pretty excited,” said Brown, the town’s mayor.
But the redevelopment plan is a long-term vision, he cautioned, which will probably unfold over the next 20 to 30 years.
“It’s just been sitting there, collecting weeds,” he said of the old mill site. “Now, it looks like it has new life coming to it.”