Gazette opinion: Building up Main Street Montana

2014-04-10T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Building up Main Street Montana The Billings Gazette
April 10, 2014 12:00 am

When 1,958 Montanans answered Main Street Montana surveys, there was a surprising amount of agreement.

From Dawson to Missoula and every county between, “outdoor recreation” was named as a strength in our economy. Statewide, men and women of every age and education level cited “low wages” as a weakness.

Yellowstone County

Housing was frequently named as a weakness. In Yellowstone County where rents are rising and the home building industry is humming again after a few slow years, low wages was the most cited economic weakness, followed by distance to markets.

For strengths, Yellowstone County residents most often named outdoor recreation, strategic location of urban center, access to higher education, no sales tax and strategic location of airport. The goals survey respondents most frequently wanted for Yellowstone County are to improve schools and to reduce regulation and taxes.

Dawson County

The top goal among survey respondents in Dawson County was improve infrastructure. Although housing was the most-cited weakness, only one person listed housing as a goal.

Richland, Custer counties

Likewise, Richland County respondents said housing was the county’s greatest weakness and improved infrastructure should be its goal. In Custer County, most survey respondents supported goals of downtown revitalization and improved infrastructure.

Gallatin County

In Gallatin County, the most popular goals were to diversify the economic base, encourage growth of existing businesses and promote a strong entrepreneurial climate.

The weaknesses most often cited among Gallatin County respondents were cost of living, followed by low wages.

Park County

In Park County, respondents most often listed goals of increasing tourism, downtown revitalization and reducing regulation and taxes.

The survey was distributed through the Montana Chamber of Commerce, local economic development agencies and email to every business in the state Department of Labor and Industry database, according to Mike Wessler, spokesman for Gov. Steve Bullock. The survey also was offered to the 1,000 people who attended Main Street Montana events and was available online at the Main Street Montana website. The survey isn’t a statistically valid demographic sample because everyone who wanted to take it was counted. However, there were survey respondents from all 56 counties and seven Indian reservations.

The responses provide food for thought as community and state leaders set priorities for promoting business and boosting Montana’s economy.

Bullock appointed Larry Simkins, CEO of the Washington Cos., and Bill Johnstone, CEO of Davidson Cos., to co-chair the Main Street project. They helped Bullock develop a state business plan with input from the survey and meetings.

The plan rests on five pillars:

- Train and educate tomorrow’s workforce today.

- Create a climate that attracts, retains and grows businesses.

- Build upon Montana’s economic foundation to responsibly develop natural resources, provide reliable infrastructure and protect Montanans’ quality of life.

- Market Montana.

- Nurture emerging industries and encourage innovation.

Looking at the survey responses and the pillars that cover a wide range of business issues, we see a gap in addressing shortages of affordable housing. Already in parts of Eastern Montana, the influx of oil and gas workers has far outstripped the availability of any type of housing, resulting in makeshift man camps.

In Billings, growth due in part to the Bakken boom, has pushed up rents and priced many lower-income workers out of the housing market.

While we promote business and industry, we must plan for housing those workers and their families in growing communities throughout Montana. Let’s make affordable housing a goal for all our communities. Workers need decent places to live; Montana needs to preserve the quality of community life that we enjoy.

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

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