A second buyer has come forward with a proposal to purchase Dwyer Elementary School in Anaconda — this time to turn the vacant building into a training facility for a potential bitcoin “mine” that could usher in 300 new jobs in Anaconda.
The company behind the proposal, BitPower LLC, a subsidiary of Burrell Group, is the same company that in 2015 sought to build a for-profit medical school in Bozeman. That deal ultimately fell through, and the company instead took its plans to Boise, Idaho, where the school is expected to open next year, according to the Idaho Press-Tribune.
Last week the school district’s Buildings and Grounds Committee considered BitPower’s proposal, which outlined a $100,000 buy-sell agreement that would turn the vacant school into a training facility for the employees of a bitcoin mine the company wants to build.
The Anaconda Leader reported that the location of the potential “mine” would be in the county’s Mill Creek Tax Increment Financing District, where BitPower wants to build a data center that would “mine” the digital currency called bitcoin.
In simplified terms, bitcoins are mined using computers that solve a computational puzzle on the bitcoin network. Solving the problems allows the computers to audit transactions on the network’s public ledger, called a blockchain. Computers that perform this type of work are awarded bitcoins for their contribution to the integrity of the ledger. Every 10 minutes, 12.5 bitcoins are released worldwide. As of Friday afternoon, the price of one bitcoin is $17,678, according to Google.
BitPower representatives told committee members last week that the entire bitcoin project could bring 300 jobs to Anaconda.
For now, however, BitPower is still seeking a home for its training facility.
Wednesday night, Anaconda’s school board declined to take action on the buy-sell agreement, removing an action item to approve the agreement from the agenda and putting the matter up for discussion without a vote.
The outcome wasn’t something that sat well with those in the room who said they wanted to see the building off the district’s books sooner rather than later.
Dwyer has sat empty since its last students closed out the school year in 2016 — the year that trustees voted 5-2 to close the school as part of a district consolidation plan. In August, the school board approved an agreement to sell Dwyer for $100,000 to Butte-based financial adviser Scott Haeffner, who wanted to turn the building into a retirement facility. But that deal fell through in late fall, superintendent Gerry Nolan told The Montana Standard Thursday, noting that “the two sides couldn’t agree.”
“I was just wondering when this board voted not to sell a building,” said trustee Jaime Valentini, in reference to earlier comments from trustee Dan Villa, who expressed concern that the district could grow and may need the building at a later date. Villa also said he felt that Dwyer, along with the district’s other for-sale properties, wasn’t a good fit for BitPower’s vision, suggesting that the company look at other vacant properties in town.
“Either these projects are going to go … and that will increase our enrollment and we’ll have no place to put our kids,” said Villa, referring to BitPower’s jobs figure and the 700 jobs that Premier Industries has said it will bring to the community through its slag-processing facility, “or it’s not going to go anywhere, and we just sold the buildings for no reason.”
But Valentini said the district should follow through on the plans it made when the board voted to consolidate Anaconda schools.
“I don’t see how you can unanimously, Dan, say (there are other) buildings for sale when we are advertising a building for sale,” Valentini said. “We had a master planning committee, a consolidation group, and we all agreed (selling Dwyer) was the best thing.”
Trustee Angela Galle seemed to agree.
“I just don’t want to say I or this board is a barrier to businesses coming to town and to growth,” said Galle.
Earlier in the meeting, Galle said she wanted the board to work with BitPower to find a solution, whether at Dwyer or another district property up for sale.
“I, as a taxpayer, school-board member, as a parent, and as a community member, think that I want to have an attitude of welcoming growth and trying to work together,” said Galle. “I think that people do welcome growth and opportunity, they just need to feel like it’s done in a way that is protective of their own interests.”
Villa also made note of a deed covenant on the property, which he said stipulates that the property can only be used as an education facility, lest it revert to Atlantic Richfield Company. However, Anaconda Chief Executive Bill Everett said that the board could add language to the buy-sell agreement that would make the agreement contingent on the covenant being lifted.
Also at issue Wednesday was how much electricity the facility would use and what kind of noise the facility is anticipated to produce. Trustees and audience members noted that Project Spokane, a bitcoin mine located in Bonner, east of Missoula, has irked residents because of the noise it produces, which a June article in the Missoulian described as being “like a jet engine winding up.”
Rick Tabish, consultant and former principal for Premier Industries who served as a spokesperson for BitPower Wednesday, said that the training center would be a 3-to-8-megawatt facility, only a fraction of the size of the bitcoin mine that BitPower wants to build along Mill Creek Highway, south of Anaconda. He added that the training center’s noise impact would be “de minimis.”
Tabish did not provide information on how large the main bitcoin mine would be, but he told the Standard after the meeting that the two companies could share a substation that Premier plans to build for its plant, also on Mill Creek Highway.
Anaconda resident Blake Hempstead, meanwhile, told trustees he worried Butte-Silver Bow might swoop in and court the project if the board didn’t move forward with the buy-sell agreement.
“We have an equity firm with an astonishing worldwide portfolio that wants to buy a building you have all listed for sale, and again Butte-Silver Bow is waiting to scoop up the opportunity,” said Hempstead.
Nolan, the superintendent, said Thursday no action has been taken in the buy-sell agreement and BitPower can pursue that matter again before the board.