Barriers remain to bringing wood products factory to Libby

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The next step in bringing an MDF plant to Libby is securing a line of credit for local officials the Washington businessman wooed for the project. These officials support the businessman despite past legal issues.

When officials announced the possibility of setting up a manufacturing plant in town earlier this year, they touted it as the culmination of a burgeoning public-private partnership. State and federal agencies hope to clear up the forest lands around the area’s scattered communities, and a processing plant is seen as a way to handle the raw material discarded by the effort.

And the plant could employ more than 150 workers in a county that regularly has a higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state.

To facilitate the process of settling in Libby, local officials are exploring ways to obtain the necessary funds to bring the necessary equipment to the area.

On July 2, Lincoln County Port Authority board members considered the possibility of securing a loan through the county for Corey Bitton, the business owner hired to run the factory.

Lincoln County Commissioner Jerry Bennett said he was reviewing the legality of the arrangement. Securing the roughly $600,000 needed for this next step was a “pivoting point” in the development of the project, he said.

The machines Bitton intends to use are in an old factory in Dubuque, Iowa. The equipment came to market after the building that once housed the Dubuque factory was remodeled.

DURING THE ANNOUNCEMENT plans to build the plant in May, Mark Peck, then county commissioner representing the district that includes Libby, said an engineering firm would inspect the machinery first. With county support, Britton could ship it to Lincoln County and move into a large structure on Port Authority property commonly referred to as the Stinger Building.

Speaking at the July 2 meeting, Peck, who now works as a shared stewardship coordinator with the Port Authority, said it might have been easier to supply the plant with new equipment. Although it was the most expensive option, it would have speeded up the process, he said.

In a follow-up interview, Peck said if the loan through the county were to go ahead, the funds would not come from local taxpayer dollars. The county would draw economic development funds or money from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Ultimately, none of the financial support Bitton might receive would come out of the pockets of Lincoln County taxpayers, according to Peck.

“One thing we want to make sure is that we’re not putting the county at financial risk here if this doesn’t work out,” Peck said in a June 24 interview.

While local officials say they are working with Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office to find other sources of funding, details have yet to come to fruition.

Peck said officials plan to use dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, a federal economic stimulus bill signed into law earlier this year, to support the project. They are also exploring new market tax credits as a way to support Bitton’s operations.

Details on the purchase of the Stinger building are still in the works.

ALREADY GRAPPLE With the complexities involved in luring a manufacturing company to Libby, officials learned of another potential headache last month: Bitton’s criminal history.

In 2007, Bitton pleaded guilty to mail fraud, wire fraud, and aiding and abetting in federal court in Washington state. He was sentenced to three years probation for the charges of mail fraud and wire fraud and aiding and abetting, which occurred concurrently.

Fines and surcharges for each case were $1,350. Bitton had to pay $25,000 in restitution to the Washington State Department of Revenue in the mail fraud case.

The charges stemmed from Bitton’s management of a restaurant and catering business he owned in Pasco, Washington.

Bitton “materially and falsely understated his earnings” for four months in 2000, according to court documents, leading to the mail fraud case. While planning to sell the business in mid-2000, Bitton prepared and submitted false financial statements, which overstated his gross revenues and net revenues from the transaction leading to wire fraud and cases of help and encouragement.

Following the July 2 Port Authority meeting, Bennett and Peck said prior convictions against Bitton, recently revealed by the Kootenai Valley Record, did not complicate the project. Both men said they were unaware of the convictions.

Both said state officials have reviewed the cases and are not concerned.

PECK SAID he expected more details about the project to emerge in the coming weeks.

Plans for the fibreboard plant were unveiled when Gianforte visited the Port Authority in May. Peck expected the plant to employ about 40 workers per shift. Taking into account transport and support works, the operations could provide between 150 and 200 jobs. When in operation, the plant would be valued between $60 million and $80 million.

By processing wood from local forest fuel reduction projects, the plant would tap into an already abundant source of raw materials.

“Traditionally you have a big sawmill there and you try to make the forest meet the needs of the mill,” Peck said. “We have an opportunity here to change that paradigm, where we put wood products here at a manufacturing capacity that meets the needs of the forest.”

During the tour, Gianforte said his office would look at ways to support the factory.

“This is the kind of project we would like to support,” the governor said in May.

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