Regional Economic Diversification

By Adam Jerome, I-O Reporter
Regional Economic Diversification
Joe Briggs ~ Cascade County Commissioner
   On July 22 the Great Falls Development Authority met to present the initial rollout of the Diversification Project Strategy Report.
   This project was initiated as the result of the loss of the 564th Missile Squadron on Malmstrom Air Force Base in July of 2007.
   As part of proactive strategy development, local leadership realized the need to look further at economic diversification to truly offset impacts from the loss of the 564th squadron.  Cascade County applied for funding on behalf of the affected areas to conduct a regional economic diversification project that would quantify the economic impacts of the 50 missiles that were lost.
   The counties affected include Pondera, Cascade, Glacier, Teton, and Toole with the communities of Conrad, Cut Bank, Choteau, Browning, Great Falls, Shelby and Valier all being labeled as the Sweet Grass area.
   When the Malmstrom Air Force Base 564th squadron was eliminated that meant that the Sweet Grass area lost 50 missiles and 550 personnel.  
   After the removal a bigger tax burden was created on the citizens of the Sweet Grass area, because the government quit paying for county roads leading to the missile sites.
   Another impact came through economic losses as well.  It is estimated that the counties involved lost over $32 million.  Over $20 was lost as direct payroll.  School funding has also been affected due to the loss in tax base.
   With that much lost money in the Sweet Grass area the Great Falls Development Authority hired the Praxis Strategy Group (PSG) to assess the advantages and disadvantages in the economic sector while also looking at the area overall population demographic.
   Since 2003 these counties have lost around one percent of their population.  When examined further PSG found that the lowest percentage of people in the area are in the crucial 20-39 age range.  These people tend to be the majority of your workforce.
   PSG discovered that the biggest employers in the region are in government, trade, transportation, and utilities.
   After looking at the basic demographics of the area they began to look at the regional workforce.  Over 62 percent of the workforce has some education or training beyond high school, 22 percent have an undergraduate degree, and eight percent have a post graduate degree of some kind.
   The average age of the workforce is 37 years old with the average length of employment at one business being five years.
   The Sweet Grass major knowledge trends include food production and building and construction.  
   The major skill tendencies include repair and equipment maintenance.
   After identifying who works in the economy and what skills employees have, the Praxis group began to come up with some competitive economic advantages of the Sweet Grass.
   For example: The region supports regional development by strengthening ties between development organizations and the private sector.
   There is a diverse workforce that is adequately trained for the regions industry groups.
   There is significant transportation and a strong financial sector with locally and regionally owned banks.
   The area has significant recreational and natural assets in the region, such as Glacier Park and the Bob Marshal Wilderness.
   There has been an emergence of small scale manufacturing, such as ITB.
   There are also competitive disadvantages, but as Praxis member Doug McDonald pointed out, “Theses disadvantages are not necessarily disqualifiers, but instead challenges to be met.”
   These disadvantages include:  Having a low unemployment overall, which may suggest workforce shortages.
   There is a perceived notion of the remote location of the area i.e. friction of distance and a limited access to early stage venture and equity capital.
   After going over the advantages and disadvantages PSG presented what they believe to be the next step.
   The area needs to explore and develop equity opportunities for regional angles, establish and maintain business retention and expansion programs; Utilize the MSU COT to expand community training opportunities and maintain regional workforce assessments every 18-24 months.
   Some of the potential industry targets noted include small scale fabricated metal production, small businesses focusing on the wind industry, an expanded transportation sector, and niche markets such as micro breweries and organic food businesses.
   It was also suggested that energy production and agriculture should be the main focus of the region on a large scale.  Montana is uniquely abundant with energy as there are lots of opportunities to utilize both water and wind power.  Many states have either one or the other, but very few have both wind and water at their disposal.
   Agriculture is unique in the Sweet Grass area because of the consistency year in and year out of the crop production.  The Sweet Grass area is also very heavy into production of the three main cash crops (Wheat, Barley, and Forage Crops).
   Those three crops make up over 97 percent of the acres harvested in the Sweet Grass.
   When it comes to ranching, over 98 percent of caves raised go to out of state feed lots, but the majority of the pork in the area is ready to finish.  This leads PSG to suggest that pork processing could become a major staple of our economy.
PSG is quick to point out that if the Sweet Grass area wants to increase their economic opportunities they must rely on business owners and civic minded individuals in these communities to go out and create these opportunities for themselves and not wait for them to come from the outside, because that may not happen.