On a cold, damp, February evening, roughly 70 residents of Bonner, Montana, population 1,633, filed into the cafeteria of the local elementary school to talk about their new neighbors. For two making a bitcoin mining rig build under the fluorescent lights, community members trudged up to the podium in their snow boots to voice concerns about the sound coming from the town’s old lumber mill. Some claimed the wildlife — particularly the hummingbirds and the deer — were nowhere to be found since the roar began around six months ago.
Over decades, they’ve grown used to the sounds coming from the building when it was a lumber mill. In recent months, with bitcoin’s value and cultural prominence rising spectacularly, dozens of cryptocurrency mines have popped up in the rural West, following in the geographic footsteps of a previous gold rush. In January, an unknown company working in the blockchain space purchased 67,000 acres at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center in Nevada, right next to Tesla’s Gigafactory. And here in Bonner, a town of less than 2 square miles nestled along the winding banks of Western Montana’s Blackfoot River, one of North America’s largest bitcoin mines has set up shop.
The locals have questions — about how it all works, about how cryptocurrency mining might revitalize the area’s sluggish economy, and most important, about whether it can be trusted to stay in the region for the long-term. Jim Davison, executive director of the Anaconda Local Development Corporation. And it appears that maybe they have. Davison’s organization works with companies looking to do business in and near Anaconda, a town of just over 9,000 about 100 miles southeast of Bonner, and he has watched closely as cryptocurrency companies have courted the region.
205,000 to house a training facility for data center employees. In late January, the company bought up a 53-acre plot of warehouses owned by a technology company. You need just four things to produce bitcoin profitably: stable government, cheap power, good internet, and space. Those plans will likely appeal to local governments, but residents of Anaconda and Butte — once home to one of the biggest copper mines in the nation — are wary. On a private Facebook group for the town, locals expressed their excitement at the prospect of a new industry in Anaconda, but worried about hitching the region’s economic development to a technology as new and complex as cryptocurrency.
How many of those jobs will be filled with current unemployed in Anaconda? The jobs are contracted, which means no benefits. Have you looked for work in anaconda lately! According to Schmidt, the region has seen numerous businesses — from helmet-lining manufacturers to golf course architects — promise and then fail to revitalize the community in the decades since its first major job creator, a smelting plant, closed in 1981. It’s no wonder we jump at any possibilities of recovery, however slim the chances. Schmidt argued that, even if the cryptocurrency company rounds down its job estimates from 300 to something more modest, it’s still better than nothing.
We have the power at the substation, why not siphon off a few megawatts to entice a company to set up shop? Maybe our kids will stay in town to keep us old folks company. But, he said, there’s reason to be gun-shy. It’s based on a currency that isn’t tangible, won’t ever replace old-fashioned money, and fluctuates more than Warm Springs Creek in the spring. Making matters more difficult, the Anaconda mining project has attracted at least one name with a checkered past. Project Spokane’s mining operation, nestled in the mountains of western Montana.
Driving through Bonner, there is simply no way to miss the mine. The old lumber facility, which sits about a mile off the interstate, isn’t just massive by small-town standards — it’s one of the biggest buildings in the state. And it’s brought its occupants, a cryptocurrency company called Project Spokane, some scrutiny, including numerous skeptical articles and investigations in the local press. Project Spokane’s employees insist there’s nothing nefarious about their operation and that they’re mostly a bunch of computer geeks and enthusiasts working to keep a massive data center running smoothly. Most of the bad press, they say, is unwarranted suspicion, the combined result of general confusion about what bitcoin is, as well the company efforts to protect its business with a bit of operational secrecy. Project Spokane’s Jason Vaughan, a Montanan who now oversees day-to-day operations at the Bonner mine, said on a snowy February morning from inside the company’s spartan offices, located in an old auxiliary lumber building.