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Noxon looks forward: Bouncing back from devastating fires

A fire in February destroyed three long-standing businesses in the town of Noxon
Posted at 6:04 PM, Apr 17, 2024

NOXON — The community of Noxon is still recovering after a tougher winter than most.
A fire in February destroyed three long-standing businesses in the town of Noxon. On Tuesday, April 16, the community came together to discuss how to bounce back.

Before Feb. 27, The Angry Beaver General Store, The Mercantile Cafe and Toby’s Tavern stood together across the street from the Noxon Community Park.

Today, workers and residents are cleaning up the last of the debris from the burnt buildings.

The Monday after the fire, Gabriel Mease, a Noxon resident and owner of the local sawmill, gathered with a few neighbors to start discussing the next steps.

Mease wanted to make sure that the small-town residents had a say in the future of their town.

“It can't be necessary that we have to rely on outsiders to rebuild what it is that we lost,” he says. “But the town lost something too, you know? The businesses just didn't lose their business, the town lost its heart center, its root.”

The Monday meeting resulted in the creation of a Facebook group: “Rebuilding Noxon.” The goal is to turn the group into a non-profit entity with the following mission statement:

“Rebuilding Noxon is dedicated to fostering sustainable economic growth, enhancing the quality of life for all residents, and ensuring community involvement in the redevelopment of key local businesses affected by disaster," Mease says. "We aim to build a resilient and prosperous community through inclusive, transparent, and collaborative efforts."

Building back the buildings of the businesses lost to the fire would be very difficult for the property owners since modernizing the sewer and electrical systems is expensive.

Rebuilding Noxon hopes to ease some of the burden on the owners, making it a community issue to solve. 

“Nor should it be only their responsibility to give us a food source,” Mease says. “We need to we need a grocery store, okay? We need a place to go.”

Rebuilding Noxon held a community meeting on Tuesday, April 16, to discuss their plans and receive feedback from residents. Other attendees included representatives from Ryan Zinke and John Tester and Sanders County Commissioner Anthony Cox.

If Rebuilding Noxon were successful in establishing a 501c non-profit, the town would be able to use the organization to apply for grants and pressure state leaders into supporting the community.

“One of the things I’ve noticed, and I used to run a non-profit, but communities that organize and try to figure out what they want, and try to do something, people really — the funders and that — really try to help people that try to help themselves,” one resident said at the meeting. “And the way to do it is to organize, and you really have to reach the community to have validity.”

Two representatives from the Montana Co-Op spoke about the possibilities of a non-profit in Noxon at Tuesday's meeting, including grants available through the state co-op.

 “We’ve got lots of resources and support that we're bringing to the table and some ideas, but really, it's about your ideas,” Montana Co-Op president Jason Moore said.

The Montana Co-Op would be able to apply on behalf of Noxon for the Heart and Soul program, a data and collection process that interviews residents of small towns and helps them maintain a vision for the community’s future.

 Heart and Soul can coach Noxon through the process of taking in everyone’s input and creating a cohesive plan.

 “When you got that, then there’s a much better chance that it’s going to succeed, and everyone is going to be happy about it because they had some input,” Moore says.

The opportunity through the Montana Co-Op is just one of the examples of how a bona fide organization in Noxon could streamline the reconstruction process.

Rebuilding Noxon as a non-profit could also request letters of support from legislative leaders to increase their chances of receiving grants.

Attendees of the meeting were mostly concerned with permits and zoning codes slowing the process of building and preventing new or old businesses from thriving.

One couple who attended the meeting spoke about their struggles in opening a food truck.

“We're running into conflicts everywhere we turn to even to open up a food truck,” they said. “We have not been allowed to do anything, and if this continues the only people that can move in here will be big business.”

The possibility of big businesses swooping into Noxon and taking advantage of the town’s misfortune was another big concern among community members.

“The biggest travesty that could happen to us right now is for a third party super organization to come in and just fix the problem of a desperate community and then export all of those funds and then pay their employees bottom dollar,” Mease said. “We don’t need that.”

Rebuilding Noxon has the idea to create a co-op building in place of the other three businesses, making it easier for people to create new enterprises.

“It doesn't need to be some new fancy glass aluminum building, it needs to be Montana," Mease said.

They also want to discuss immediate, short-term options in order to reestablish a functioning Noxon, including a pop-up grocery store or a food delivery program.

While the owners of the Angry Beaver and Toby’s Tavern did not attend the meeting, Mease said the group will not make any decisions without input from all the businesses.

“One of the things that could come out of this meeting is getting consensus with the owners of those parcels and saying hey, what are your plans, would you pledge to sell this property to our co-op?” Mease said. “We’re not asking you to give us a discount, we’re not asking you to do anything, but if you’re not going to rebuild– if you are going to rebuild, can we help you? We’d love to help. If you’re not going to rebuild, can we buy it? And then it can be owned by the community and we can actually start doing something there right away.”

Rebuilding Noxon plans to have a recurring meeting at 5:30 every other Tuesday at Noxon School. Updates can be found on their Facebook page.