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Bainville workover rig

An MBI Energy Services workover rig maintains an oil well near Bainville in February.

MISSOULA — The population in Montana counties near the Bakken oil patch outpaced the state’s metropolitan counties when viewed by their percent of growth, according to new figures released by the University of Montana.

While the numbers could spell discouragement for some counties, those with an eye on the economy – which in part drives population – believe the next 18 months will bring renewed opportunity to Missoula County, including supporting industries associated with energy development in Eastern Montana.

Citing new figures by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at UM reported that Richland County stood among the state’s fastest-growing counties with 6.6 percent population growth, amounting to 667 new residents.

The nearby counties of Sheridan, Wibaux, Fallon, Roosevelt and Dawson grew at 3 percent, though the actual number of newcomers was small.

“The only thing that’s surprising is that it’s not a little bit higher,” said Jim Sylvester, director of survey operations at the UM bureau. “A lot of the growth you see out there is part time. They’re not residents. They’re coming from the western part of the state and from out of state.”

Sylvester attributed the growth in northeastern Montana to high rates of in-migration driven largely by the oil boom. People move to the region seeking jobs related to energy development and the services that come with it.

Nineteen counties in Montana lost population over the last year.

While Missoula County saw its population grow just 0.8 percent, the small number accounts for 863 new residents. Numerically speaking, only Yellowstone and Gallatin counties grew more, with 1,975 and 1,260 new residents moving in, respectively.

“We’ve had some major closings that haven’t been replaced yet,” Sylvester said, naming the loss of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp.’s Frenchtown linerboard plant. “A lot of those people have left.”

James Grunke, executive director of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said unemployment in Missoula remains relatively low when compared to surrounding counties. It’s not due to an increase in jobs, he said, but rather to people leaving the area for opportunity elsewhere.

“We do know that since the recession began, people have left the marketplace,” Grunke said. “But we’ve seen a lot of increased activity in both the commercial and retail sector, and I think we’ll see a reverse in that trend.”

Grunke said 2,000 people recently attended a job fair held by the Missoula Job Service, in which 100 businesses showcased available work. He said MEP has met with companies already located in Missoula and are looking to expand, along with other companies eyeing the city for new opportunity.

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“We think in the next 18 months, across all sectors, it’s easy to see as many as 1,000 new jobs here,” Grunke said. “That’s based on the current activity we’re seeing. This is across sectors – retail, service and medical. It’s not an unrealistic number.”

Grunke sees other bright spots in Missoula’s economy, including businesses looking to capitalize off activity in the Bakken. Diesel trucks used in the oil fields are being serviced in Missoula, he said, and engineering firms are getting work from activity in Eastern Montana.

He said the Montana World Trade Center, in cooperation with the MEP, recently hosted a seminar in Butte on doing business in the Bakken. He said interest among local companies was high.

“We’re going to be a beneficiary of the Bakken, not just labor, but the support industries that come with it,” Grunke said. “We have Missoula-area businesses asking how to do business there. It’s only going to increase.”

The Missoula economy, along with population growth, also may be tied to the market in other regions of the country. Sylvester said Missoula County enjoyed strong growth through amenities during the last decade. But until the real estate market recovers on the West Coast, amenity growth in Missoula will continue to be weak.

“They can’t sell their homes in California, so they can’t move here,” he said.

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