ST. REGIS — Leaders from the Mineral County Courthouse to the State Capitol are expressing complete surprise over this week's announcement the Idaho Forest Group (IFG) is closing its sawmill in St. Regis, throwing 99 people out of work.
IFG announced Monday it will "indefinitely suspend operations" because of the declining lumber market.
Mineral County Commissioner Duane Simons, who's worked at the mill for 12 years, tells MTN News the development was totally unexpected for employees, and the community.
"Everyone in the room was terribly surprised. It wasn't good. Nobody liked it and it was just a big surprise to everyone there. It came out of the blue to us."
It also came as a surprise to Gov. Greg Gianforte, who was seen touring the mill late last week in a video provided by the governor's office.
When MTN News talked to him later that same day, Gianforte was very upbeat about the visit, and the investment IFG had made after buying the mill four years ago.
"The Governor was surprised to learn of the closure and feels for the community of St. Regis and the hardworking Montanans impacted by its closure." - statement from Gov. Gianforte's office
In a Facebook post, IFG noted it had a temporary closure early last year to make improvements, but still hadn't been able to "consistently meet manufacturing goals".
The company says the mill was helped by "favorable market" conditions early this year, but with recent declines, the mill couldn't continue operating at a loss.
Regional Manager Mike Henley said, "we did not arrive at this decision easily or lightly and we recognize the very real and human consequences for our employees and the community."
"We were just starting to get a more stable school population with people moving here getting jobs at the mill and having young families again," Simons told me. "I think a good part of that is gonna go away."
We asked Simons if community support will be a huge effort in the coming months.
"Yes, it is," Simons responded. "And our community is like that. All of our communities in Mineral County help each other out when there's a need. This is one more of those times. We're going to pull together. We've been through this before when the Crown Pacific Mill in Superior went down."
That mill closure idled 146 workers in 1994.
IFG is promising to help employees through the transition, working with the Montana Department of Labor and Industry heading toward full closure in November. For now, the company is just suspending operations, rather than dismantling the mill.