Bitterroot Valley economy on its way up from the bottom

2013-12-22T00:15:00Z Bitterroot Valley economy on its way up from the bottomBy PERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic The Billings Gazette
December 22, 2013 12:15 am  • 

HAMILTON — Vicki Steele no longer feels like the Bitterroot Valley is on a freefall toward the bottom of the barrel.

The workforce consultant and business advocate with the Bitterroot Job Service has seen the number of jobs being offered by local companies spin around in the right direction.

“I think things are slowly beginning to turn around here,” Steele said. “There is no question about that. We have kind of hit the bottom of the barrel and we’re headed back the other way. Our job seekers are finding a way to get back to work. Some have taken advantage of opportunities to be retrained and others have found work in their chosen fields.”

The service’s job board typically has been holding steady during the past few months at 90 to 100 job openings.

That’s nearly double what it showed just a few years ago.

“During the worst of it, it got as low as 15 to 20 job openings,” Steele said. “That was very, very scary. There were so many people looking for work back then.”

In the past few years, the board typically averaged 50 to 60 jobs this time of year.

“I think the fact that we have so many employers looking for people right now is a ray of hope for the future,” she said. “We know there is no overnight fix for this.”

There are still plenty of challenges ahead for the Bitterroot Valley.

The empty storefronts scattered throughout downtown Hamilton have Bitterroot Valley Chamber of Commerce director Al Mitchell concerned.

“We all know that the job market is improving statewide, but locally we have some mixed signals,” Mitchell said. “Main Street is struggling right now and that has to do with people choosing not to stay and shop here. There are a lot of dollars flying right out of the valley. Our hope is that we can find a way to convince people to try shopping here first.”

The city of Hamilton is considering setting aside funds to conduct a study that would eventually create a master plan for the downtown area. The study would consider the current mix of businesses with an eye toward looking for ways to make the downtown more attractive to both locals and visitors.

“Over the past few years, we’ve put a lot money into our parks in Hamilton,” said Mitchell, who also serves on the city council. “We want to now concentrate our efforts on downtown to see what we can accomplish there. I think a lot of it right now is an attitude problem. We want to get the message out there that we’re open for business.”

The housing market in the Bitterroot has been on the upswing this past year. The average sales price of a home was $223,222 in the first three quarters of the year. That was up from $197,819 the year before.

The inventory of homes at the lower price levels is getting tight.

“The really low and best sales deals are gone,” said longtime Bitterroot Valley appraiser Darwin Ernst. “The property owners who are left get to sell their properties at something closer to what the home’s market value really is.”

There were 357 sales of residential homes on 40 acres or less through Sept. 30 this year. Of that number, 73 were owned by banks or the government.

In the same period last year, there were 318 sales, of which 105 were bank or government owned.

Ernst said there is still a year-and-a-half surplus of homes on the market in the Bitterroot Valley, which will keep prices in check.

Julie Foster, director of the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority, said this year just feels different to her.

“It seems like the last three years everyone was just working on staying in business and doing what they had to to make that happen,” Foster said. “Now people are starting to hire some new employees. They are doing a little bit of expansion and some capital improvements.”

“I think there’s been some new business that flowed in under the radar screen of most people here in the valley,” she said.

And there has been some community activity to promote new business opportunities as they become available. As a prime example, Foster points to Stevensville, where a $5 million water and sewer infrastructure improvement project is helping businesses expand and increasing the potential for new ones to locate there. The project is scheduled for completion this year.

“Stevensville should be really proud. Once you get that kind of infrastructure completed, people will come and locate there. If you don’t have it, people move away,” Foster said. “What it comes down to is, if a community waits until an opportunity is looking it in the eye, then you don’t have time to build the infrastructure. At some point, any community that wants to grow has to have the vision and agree that some things need to happen. Stevensville has gone and done that.”

The local businesses that have weathered the storm are stronger for it.

“They are those companies that have this knowledge that they’ve built over time,” Foster said.

“Companies like Cooper Firearms and Lakeland Feed survived because of their attention to quality that has allowed them to get customers that others can’t easily get. Those customers will be hard for others to take away. There are businesses out there that have a lower threshold and it’s easier to take their piece of the pie.”

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