Boundary County's unemployment rate shot to nearly 13 percent in July. Without a concerted focus on job recruitment, Kerby fears the community will begin a downward spiral. As families leave, retail sales will drop, school enrollments will shrink, and governments will cut services and budgets to make up for lost tax revenue. The city-owned power department is already facing a $200,000 loss in profits from the mill closure.
"In a community of 10,000 people, when you lose 130 jobs, that's huge," Kerby said. "The community is anxious, the unemployed are anxious. We need industrial jobs to re-employ those people."
Thursday's work group faces daunting odds.
Reopening the mill would be difficult, given depressed prices for wood products and the fierce competition for logs among North Idaho mills. Other communities -- such as Council, Idaho -- have used state and federal grants to turn closed mill sites into business parks. But though the parks brought new industry to town, the communities had trouble attracting jobs that paid as well as the mills did, said Cliff Long, the Idaho Department of Commerce's business development manager.
A sawmill worker in the Idaho Panhandle earns an average of $36,500 annually, compared with the region's average wage of $25,000.
"The forest products tended to be good jobs with good salary and good benefits, and they are difficult to replace," Long said.
Even the transfer of the Bonners Ferry mill to a new owner remains up in the air. Last month, Louisiana-Pacific announced that it would sell three North Idaho mills to Riley Creek Lumber Co. of Laclede. Owner Marc Brinkmeyer signed a letter of intent to purchase the L-P mills in Chilco and Moyie Springs, which he plans to continue operating.
Brinkmeyer also agreed to buy the Bonners Ferry site. Before the sale can go through, however, L-P must resolve issues related to the lease of the sawmill's equipment, L-P spokesman David Dugan said. L-P subleased the Bonners Ferry mill's equipment from a previous owner, Crown Pacific Partners, which filed for bankruptcy this summer.
"It's too early to say how the bankruptcy will impact the situation," Dugan said.
Brinkmeyer declined to comment this week on the feasibility of reopening the Bonners Ferry mill. He said he will work with the community to explore options for the site, but will be out of town and unable to attend Thursday's meeting.
Rudy Hernandez, manager of the state employment office in Bonners Ferry, cautions laid-off workers when he hears them discussing the mill's chances of reopening.
"Some of these guys are still in denial," he said. "They think they'll go back to work there. That's a possibility, but not the most likely one."
In reality, restarting the mill would require a large cash infusion and a new business model, said Chuck Roady, a forester who worked for previous owners of the mill.
When the Bonners Ferry mill was rebuilt in the late 1990s, it became an extremely efficient producer of studs -- 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s used for framing buildings. But the upgrade put the Bonners Ferry mill in direct competition with the Moyie Springs mill, which also makes studs.
"You had Bonners Ferry and Moyie Springs, five miles apart," Roady said. "They cut the same-sized logs, used the exact same species, and made the same product."
Roady thinks the Bonners Ferry mill could be successful if it focused on another line of products. He and Kerby were part of a community-based group that explored the possibility of making an offer on the L-P mills. The group figured that remodeling the Bonners Ferry mill would cost $7 million to $10 million, but the group didn't get far enough to determine if the mill could be profitable under another scenario.
"Personally, I would like to see it stay in the forest products industry," Roady said. "We're in a county with 80 percent public land ownership, so there's definitely the resource there."
Kerby said he hopes to see the site remain in manufacturing, because those jobs typically support a higher wage.
"Obviously, that would be a priority," he said. "But when a community is down and out, you pretty much have to be an opportunistic group."
Don Allenburg said he's grateful that the community is pulling together to discuss possibilities. He lost his job as maintenance supervisor when the Bonners Ferry mill closed, and hopes to stay in the area.
" My daughter will be a high school senior. I have a 12-year-old son, and this will be his first year of hunting season," Allenburg said. "I think it would be the worst thing to move my family."
Jenkins, meanwhile, is considering enrolling in a two-month, heavy equipment operator training program near Kelso, Wash. He and his wife are torn about leaving Naples, where their family roots stretch back to homesteading days.
However, "I want to get out of it," Jenkins said of mill work. "The future just doesn't look good." •Becky Kramer can be reached at (208) 765-7122 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.