Things are looking up in 2014 for Great Falls economy

2013-12-22T00:00:00Z Things are looking up in 2014 for Great Falls economyBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Lee Newspapers The Billings Gazette
December 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The Great Falls area should see an economic boost in 2014, the president of the Great Falls Development Authority said.

“We’re trying to grow the economy faster, diversify it and support the creation of higher wage jobs,” the authority’s Brett Doney said.

Doney said Great Falls is looking for improved economic numbers from recent years.

“We were not chalking up the numbers we wanted in 2011 and 2012, but I think our numbers will really start improving in 2014,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go. We’re headed in the right direction. We just need to keep the momentum going. We’re excited about the progress we’re seeing. It’s nice to see years of effort paying off.”

Great Falls has had a number of positive developments announced affecting its primary sector, Doney said. These include:

ADF Group Inc., based in Quebec, is building a $24 million steel fabrication plant. The company is expected to employ 300 people opening in three years to manufacture oil production modules for customers in the Alberta oil sands and possibly other markets.

Emteq, which makes wiring harnesses for the commercial aviation industry, announced an expansion during the summer for the next two years. It added 20 employees and 80 more are expected during the next two years.

Calumet Montana Refining announced a major capital project to double the capacity of the oil refinery in Great Falls. It’s a $275 million project that will add 30 jobs in the refiner.

Centene Corp. announced it is adding a second shift of workers to handle managed care plans for Medicaid for states. The job totals haven’t been announced yet.

Health Care Service Corp., which bought Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Montana, is setting up a call center to provide assistance to members of Blue Cross plans in Illinois, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Montana. It will open next year and plans to hire 100 to 150 full-time employees at competitive wages.

Two new apartment complexes will be constructed. One, being developed by the Strand Group of Missoula, is a 216-unit complex, with a clubhouse and pool, while the other, by Damon Carroll of Great Falls, is a 24-unit complex.

Some new restaurants and a brew pub are on the horizon, and some big major retail announcements are expected between now and April.

The unemployment rate in Great Falls remains below the Montana average, Barbara Wagner, chief economist for the state Department of Labor and Industry, said.

“This is because the Great Falls region was more stable during the recession than the state as a whole, with smaller job losses,” Wagner said. “However, in the past few years, the state has recovered faster than Great Falls.”

More than 21 percent of Cascade County’s private employment falls within the health care and social assistance industry category, higher the national average of 15.2 percent, according to Industry 2012, which breaks out private payroll employment into various industry groups, Wagner said.

“Like other areas of the state, health care has added quite a few jobs to the region,” the economist said. “And retail trade appears to be recovering nicely from the recession, although employment is still below the peak in 2008.”

Wagner said Great Falls didn’t experience as large of job losses in 2009 when the state saw losses, but Great Falls and Cascade County faced a couple of months of job losses in 2012 and 2013, which seem to coincide with various cuts in federal government funding during the past three years.

“For example, the job losses in 2013 appear after the federal government sequester,” Wagner said, adding that it’s “fairly likely that the job losses were related to fewer federal dollars being spent within the Great Falls economy.”

Paul Polzin, director emeritus of the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said, “Stability, or the lack of ups and downs, seems to be the word for Cascade County.”

Great Falls merchants serve a large market area running from Toole County to Valley County across the Hi-Line and counties to the south.

“It has got a very large market area,” Polzin said. “It’s not just retail, but health care, professional services, accountants and lawyers.”

The past five years have been good ones for grain farmers in the Great Falls trade area, Polzin said.

“That finds its way into Great Falls farm equipment dealers and the retail trade,” he said.

Malmstrom Air Force Base remains “the big player” in Great Falls, Polzin said, adding: “If anything should happen to Malmstrom, it would be devastating.”

The bureau has calculated that the air base makes up 47 percent of the Great Falls area’s economy, although Doney said the authority believes it’s closer to the 33 percent.

“Malmstrom’s looking pretty stable now,” Doney said, but there is concern about future changes as a result of a 2010 arms reduction treaty between the United States and Russia.

“We’re going to lose some missiles,” Doney said.

He said the future of Malmstrom “is always a psychological anvil over our heads. That’s why we’re working so hard to diversify the economy.”

David Weissman, chair of the Montana Defense Alliance who owns Subway restaurant franchises in Great Falls and Helena, said the base’s future is “fairly stable today.” He said there are a total of 450 U.S. land-based Minuteman-III intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos. They are evenly divided, with 150 missiles in silos around each of these three bases: Malmstrom, Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

The arms reduction treaty requires the United States to reduce the number of ICBMs by 30 to bring the total down to 420 ICBMs.

“What we’re fearing and hearing, it probably would be (a reduction of) 50, probably a squadron, and it’s really fluid which base would get the reduction,” Weissman said. “The question is where the reductions would come from — one base or three.”

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