From the Editor: Detrick's departure leaves a void at the MMEC

2013-03-01T00:00:00Z From the Editor: Detrick's departure leaves a void at the MMECBy TOM HOWARD The Billings Gazette

Business owners and economic development specialists expressed shock and sadness after learning that Dale Detrick is no longer working for the Montana Manufacturing Extension Center.

Detrick worked from the office of Big Sky Economic Development, Yellowstone County’s economic development agency, in Billings. During more than 11 years with the MMEC, Detrick logged thousands of miles, providing guidance to a wide range of Montana manufacturing firms. He’s well-respected within Montana manufacturing and economic development circles.

Steve Holland, Detrick’s boss and director at the MMEC at Montana State University, said he was forced to cut the agency’s field offices from five to four because state and federal funding could no longer keep up with the cost of running the program. In the end, Detrick’s position was the one identified for elimination, a process that Holland described as “one long nightmare.”

“Our federal and state funding had been flat for a decade, but our costs haven’t,” Holland said. “We had been able to offset our rising costs with a variety of grant opportunities, but those dried up.”

Fees charged to clients account for a portion of the MMEC’s income, but that still doesn’t cover the costs of running the program. With no federal earmarks and no grants available, the program had to be cut, Holland said.

Last June Detrick received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the national Manufacturing Innovation conference of the NIST Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership. NIST, shorthand for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a federal agency that promotes innovation and technology.

Detrick is making most of his situation. These days he’s carrying business cards that identify him as a consultant. He did quite a bit of consulting with manufacturers before he went to work with the MMEC, and he continues to work with the Central Montana Manufacturing Alliance in Lewistown, a group of manufacturers that are working together to strengthen manufacturing in central Montana.

“I certainly understood how it went down,” Detrick said. “Steve has been very supportive.”

Holland said he hasn’t given up hope that the MMEC’s funding could be restored in the future. “But it isn’t there in the short term,” he said. With mandatory federal budget cuts looming through the process known as sequestration, there’s not much hope that federal funding will be restored anytime soon, Holland said.

I learned about Detrick’s departure from the MMEC on Feb. 5 during the annual Economic Outlook seminar put on by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

In a presentation that focused on manufacturing, Todd A. Morgan, the bureau’s director of forest industry research, noted that Montana’s manufacturing sector shows signs of recovering from the recession. Many manufacturers who responded to a survey reported increased sales, production and profits during 2012. Thirty-six percent of survey respondents expect their business to grow this year, and 52 percent expect business to be about the same as last year.

Some have questioned the decision to eliminate Detrick’s position based on the fact that Yellowstone County leads the state in manufacturing. Holland said the three oil refineries dominate Yellowstone County’s manufacturing base, and they typically don’t require the services of the MMEC, which tends to work with smaller companies. When you subtract the oil-refining industry, other areas of Montana actually have a higher concentration of manufacturers, Holland said.

While Detrick’s departure from the MMEC isn't easy to swallow, it's not surprising in this age of government austerity. At least he’ll have the opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with clients. Good luck, Dale.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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