Chamber meets at PMC, county reports on activity

By Buck Traxler, I-O Editor

Conrad Area Chamber of Commerce members packed the conference room of the Pondera Medical Center on Wednesday.

The featured speaker was County Commissioner Cynthia Johnson who gave an overview of “what’s happening in Pondera County.”

Before Johnson spoke, there were a number of other timely reports.

Superintendent of Schools Craig Barringer reported that the school will be running a levy this election. Two candidates, incumbents, will be re-elected by acclamation. He also noted that third grade students will be making a move back to Prairie View School.

Greg Jensen, PVS principal said that would be about 45 students and it will not be a hardship.

Lisa Hanson from the PMC reported that the 13th annual Fish Fry was a big success, with 358 people served, a new record. Proceeds from the fund-raiser will go to purchase equipment at the Wellness Center.

Conrad Mayor Wendy Judisch reported that the city hired a new police officer, have one at the academy and another going out to Sidney for some training in regards to oil-gas development.

The ground work will begin at the Industrial Park.

She also noted that Congressman Denny Rehberg will be in Choteau on April 21 at 2:30 p.m. at the Choteau Country Club for a listening session. The public is invited to attend.

The Job Service noted they were running about 45 jobs and opened up 21 positions for the wind farm going in near Shelby.

From the Port Authority, Cheryl Curry commented that they have three homes for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, and two of those have buy-sell agreements.

Opening her talk, Johnson said, “Basically, we can tell you what we know for sure, what we’re doing to prepare, impacts that we are currently aware of, and what we don’t know.”

The chairman of the county commissioners said the  MATL.LLC has a presence in the county, but they are in a hold pattern right now, waiting for the sage grouse mating season to end.

Prior to that recess, the project had progressed as far as the north side of the Belgian Hill.

Construction is estimated to get back on track in about two weeks.

There was a bridge issue – the county bridges on a few roads are not large enough for the loads they wanted to bring through to their building site.

“We simply helped them find a different route and they won’t be slowed down with their building projects.

On the current hot topic – oil and gas – Johnson said, “There is rumbling of more seismic activity in western Pondera County, but we haven’t seen hard evidence yet.”

The new rig that went up on April 3, at New Miami Colony is an FX Drilling Rig owned by Teton Resources out of Billings.

The plan is to drill multiple holes in that near by location. Working through Primary Energy Company, in partnership with Occidental Oil, is drilling in western Pondera County and northeastern Teton County.

Primary has several wells punched in the county and two in Teton. They have been in Gypsy Basin, on the Mannix Ranch, on state land at the Boone and Crocket, state land near the Gernaats, and on the Graham estate property.

Both companies are currently indicating that all exploration at this time is still an “experiment” as they seek the eastern boundary of the oil field.

Both companies also have a total of about 30 employees, not including management and they have indicated they are interested in hiring additional labor.

There is oil in every hole drilled but the challenge is extraction due to the shallow horizontal oil bed. “These companies have to be very accurate,” Johnson said, adding, “These will be dollar intensive wells – not like the mega flows in eastern Montana, but there is quite a bit of confidence in the outcome.

Johnson told the gathering, “It has recently come to our attention that if you intend to sell water to any energy company for oil or gas purposes from a privately owned pond used for stock water without a  provisional permit, you need to apply for a Beneficial Water Use Permit.”

There is a $600 application fee and a labor intensive process. You must have a water marketing permit on your water rights in order to sell water for any other purposes.

Johnson said to look under water resources on the DRNC website for more information.

She said the United Grain Elevator project is progressing nicely.

The county is re-building the east 3.5 miles of Midway West.

The bridge on that road is slated for removal and replacement will be with an extra-large culvert. Schumacher Construction is doing the road work into the site. The site dirt work is 80-85 percent done, gravel will be in place within three weeks and the culverts are 90 percent complete.

Most of the crew – seven at peak activity – are staying in RV parks.

Schumacher is considering hiring operators, truck drivers, and laborers, if not for this project then others.

The company has shared that it’s hard to find consistent labor due to the activity in eastern Montana.

Love Construction, out of Iowa is doing the actual building construction and the current staging for that project began about a month ago. There are about 10-12 employees on the job.

The primary work site at Bynum is done. There are water issues with the DEQ. The Lauren Company anticipates 70 jobs initially but  they will be seasonal – none during the winter because all manufacturing/fabrication takes place outdoors.

Again, Johnson noted that “Housing will be a problem and the water issue in Bynum will prevent much growth in the immediate future.”

In Valier, seven houses sold in one week!

There are zero rental properties available. “There is a significant rental shortage, rapid realty transfers and potential impacts to home prices,” said Johnson. She went on to add, “Rental rates could easily double according to those who own rentals and there is a renewed interest in trailer park property.”

Pondera County, to prepare for the future, is participating in a four-county assessment, through Sweetgrass Development, to inventory structural (buildings) assets and infrastructure needs, such as roads and bridges, water and wastewater, communications, determine housing needs and more.

“Hopefully,” she said, “We will develop a good picture of what we’ve got in order to move forward with what we need.”

“The county, along with the City of Conrad and Town of Valier adopted a Growth Policy last year which will help guide growth, but not prevent it,” Johnson said.

“The commissioners and mayors have played with the idea of an eastern Montana road trip to visit one-on-one with the leaders in those impacted counties to learn what ‘not’ to do and learn about things we might anticipate that we haven’t thought of yet,” she said.

Johnson indicated the schools in the county are up to some expansion, water availability is not an issue in Conrad, the PMC can handle additional capacity, in fact they are in the process of hiring a new PA. “However,” she added, “We see an immediate need to plan for an increase in the public safety realm, primarily in staff, training and updated equipment.”

County Attorney MaryAnn Ries commented, “It’s important to have a presence of law enforcement.

Recently there has been a huge increase in the number of GVW violations issued. The Sheriff’s Department anticipates increased calls for all types of violations including drug abuse and trespass by moving a camper onto private property.

Roads and bridges in the county are already being negatively impacted.

With new construction, the county will see an immediate positive impact to tax revenue.

On the other hand, with oil and gas development, there is an 18-month tax holiday.

The potential for the county to see revenue from energy development remains questionable, Johnson said

“Given the impact to county infrastructure, we realize we need to tighten our belts and shift some tax dollars to areas of critical need,” she said.

The next CofC meeting will be May 9 at The Lobby, 405 N. Main Street at noon.