By Justin Franz, 2-17-13
||Caption: Downtown Libby, Mont. - File Photo by Lido Vizzutti | Flathead Beacon
It’s a headline the residents of Libby are all too familiar with: another company is closing its doors. This time Stinger Welding is shutting down its bridge building facility after a tumultuous three-and-a-half years in Montana.
But community leaders say Libby has faced adversity before and it will weather this storm as well, even if the lights have gone dark at four Libby businesses in the last two months.
“You can’t quit trying, but it is discouraging,” said Patrick Pezzelle, director of Flathead Valley Community College’s Lincoln County campus.
In early January, the Rodeway Inn boarded up its windows, leaving eight people without jobs. On Jan. 7, seven people lost their jobs when Helen’s Huckleberries, which produced candies and jams, was sold to a company in Spokane. And on Jan. 25, the Nickel Auto Group dealership sent the last cars on the lot to Kalispell and closed.
On Feb. 11, MCA Financial Group, the receiver that has been operating Stinger Welding since last month, announced the Libby plant would close. As of early January, the company employed 69 people in Lincoln County. The announcement came nearly two months after Stinger’s CEO Carl Douglas died in a plane crash near Libby. In the weeks that followed, rumors spread about the Arizona-based company’s future in Montana and information about a lawsuit between Lincoln County and the welding company spilled into public view.
“Since its appointment, the Receiver has been evaluating Stinger’s financial condition and circumstances in order to determine the most appropriate course of action with respect to Stinger’s operations,” MCA Financial’s press release read. “Based on the Receiver’s analysis, the decision has been made to begin an orderly wind down of Stinger’s operations in Montana.”
As word spread through the community, Johnette Watkins, manager of the Kootenai Job Service, got to work. Within a few days, her staff set up a rapid response workshop for Stinger employees to find out how to apply for unemployment or track down a new job.
“We just want to help people and get them back to work as soon as possible,” Watkins said. “The Stinger closure will be a big hit for our community and there will be a trickle-down effect.”
Pezzelle said it is too early to know how the community college will respond to the closure. However, he is hopeful that another employer will fill the void Stinger leaves behind.
“Our role is to keep our ears to the ground and see what our community needs,” he said. “(Stinger) was a light at the end of the tunnel. Well that light has gone dim, so let’s get another light.”
As of December, Lincoln County’s unemployment was the highest in the state with a rate of 14.8 percent.
Paul Rumelhart of the Kootenai River Development Council, which runs the industrial park in Libby, said economic development has never been easy in Lincoln County. But even with the news of Stinger’s impending closure, Rumelhart remains hopeful that Libby can attract new business. Although he was unable to get into specifics, Rumelhart said two new companies are looking into relocating or opening in the Libby industrial park and together could provide more than three-dozen jobs.
“We have room to grow and actually have an advantage over other industrial parks because of our infrastructure,” he said.
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