‘Disneyland castle’ parks at Kooskia

Weather adds second day of delay for controversial transport of megaload on U.S. 12

By Elaine Williams of the Tribune

February 5, 2011

KOOSKIA – Huckleberry sourdough pancakes, cigarettes and bulbs for strobe lights are among the purchases megaload crew members are making as the oversized cargo rolls through Idaho.

Kooskia was bustling on Thursday, just after the arrival of half a coke drum bound for a ConocoPhillips refinery in Billings, Mont. The first four days of a three-week journey are on U.S. Highway 12.

“The megaload is our Disneyland castle,” said Lara Smith, an owner of Three Rivers Resort in Lowell and the Western Motor Inn in Kooskia. “Everybody has a picture of their kids in front of the megaload.”

The interest translated into a better-than-average day for some businesses, while others along the U.S. 12 corridor noticed no difference. Any uptick restaurants, hotels and convenience stores experienced could last into the weekend.

The snow near Lowell that prevented the extra-large shipment from moving Thursday is expected to delay it at least until today. The weather will also postpone the departure of a second ConocoPhillips load, which is in Lewiston, where it was shipped from Japan, said Adam Rush, a spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department.

That half-drum had been scheduled to go Monday, and a new time won’t be set until more information is available about the weather, Rush said.

Each ConocoPhillips megaload makes stops near Orofino, Kooskia, the Lochsa Ranger Station and the Montana state line. The 30-member crew is staying at Kooskia Western Motor Inn and Three Rivers Resort the second, third and fourth days of the Idaho segment of the trip.

“Honestly, it’s great,” Smith said. “It was a huge boost for Kooskia.”

Among the businesses on U.S. 12 that benefited were the NAPA store in Kooskia, the Purple Feather Smoke Shop in Kooskia and Orofino Builders Supply.

Cindy Manning, the operator of the Country Side Cafe, rated Thursday an A-plus, with their specialty huckleberry sourdough pancakes selling well – like hotcakes. “It was a very good day for winter when we really needed it.”

Manning, however, couldn’t describe it as one of her best days since taking over the restaurant less than a year ago. “When the electricity goes out, I get 100 people outside standing in line.”

Pilot-car drivers purchased bulbs at the NAPA store, said Kelly Buxton, an employee at the store. “They did spend some money while they were moving through.”

The boost, however, was small compared with a highway project a couple of years ago, when lots of dollars went into maintaining machines, Buxton said.

Sales volume at the Purple Feather easily were 10 percent higher than a normal weekday, said Denise Halliday, an employee. “We were pretty swamped yesterday.”

She’s certain it was from megaloads, because it was people she didn’t recognize, Halliday said. “It’s crucial for small businesses in this area with the economy being so bad – everybody’s struggling.”

A block away from the Purple Feather, two storefronts were vacant on the town’s main drag.

Orofino Builders Supply sold the crew three pints of a gas additive and some odds and ends, said Leila Crockett, an owner of the store. An employee directed them to another business that does repairs on small diesel engines, Crockett said. “Any face through the door is a help.”

Other businesses along the route saw no impact, including the Kamiah Inn and the IGA grocery store in Orofino.

“It could be too soon to tell,” said Corey Watson, an owner of the IGA. He speculated the store might miss the crew since it’s not open 24 hours a day, and the loads are only allowed to run between 10 p.m. and 5:30 a.m.

One type of business that won’t see an influx is bars. More than one business owner has heard from the crews the transport is a “dry run” where drinking alcohol of any kind is banned even during off-duty hours.

How much the shipments will help if these first ones are the beginning of a wave of hundreds more, as some predict, will depend at least a little on the timing, Smith said.

The Western Motor Inn didn’t have room to accommodate all the crew members when their stay extended to Friday. It had to honor reservations of steelhead anglers who typically fill Kooskia from now until St. Patricks day, Smith said.

Summer is the other busy season.

In the long term, U.S. 12 businesses might see a boost even when the loads aren’t on the road, Crockett said. “They’re going to see how beautiful it is and bring their families back.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.