By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Some economic development professionals are testing a solution to the shrinking population of Montana towns - a Web site to attract Montanans back.
"We're just putting our toe in the water to see what the temperature is," said Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp.
The idea is one of several that grew out of resource assessments coordinated by the Montana Economic Developers Association to find out what pluses and minuses rural Montana communities have, and what projects people will support to improve their local economy.
Julie Foster, executive director of Montana Jobs Network, started working on the Web site after participating on resource assessment teams. The site will list each community's attractions to people who want to return to Montana, Erickson said.
Assessments have been done in Chester, Big Sandy, Chinook and other Hi-Line towns. One is planned for Havre this fall.
Foster, Erickson and Gloria O'Rourke, who coordinates the community assessments for the Montana Economic Development Association, will conduct workshops to show people from communities that had resource assessments done how to use the Web site.
The first workshop will be in Chester on July 14, followed by a workshop in Hobson on July 15 and one in Forsyth on Aug. 4.
The key to the "Come Home" site is that people in the towns will communicate directly with former Montanans, Erickson said.
The site, slated to be operational on June 30, is one of several examples of ideas that have arisen from the resource assessment reports.
For each assessment, a team is assembled from outside of the community that has requested a visit. The team comes to the community at no cost except for room and board for the team and providing meeting rooms.
The team holds hour-long listening sessions with different groups from the community, such as local government officials, young people, church representatives, senior citizens, farmers and ranchers, and educators.
After taking notes about each group's ideas of what assets and challenges the community has and what projects people would support, each team member writes a report with recommended actions. The individual reports, along with lists of each group's comments, are included in the final report, presented six to eight weeks later in a meeting to prioritize actions.
Cut Bank, Conrad, Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, Liberty County, Chinook and Big Sandy are among the 11 communities that have had assessments done since the the program started in 2001. The team that assessed Big Sandy will present its initial report on July 9.
Shaud Schwarzbach, president of U.S. Bank in Havre and a member of the Big Sandy City Council, said the assessment already has benefited the Big Sandy community.
"I think it was a very positive experience," he said. "It got a lot of people in town out to discuss the problems instead of making little complaints in the street. I think it probably developed a more constructive attitude instead of a destructive attitude."
Schwarzbach said he is seeing more people taking the time to clean up the town since the assessment was done May 7 and 8. People are picking up trash and cleaning weeds out of flower beds on public property, he said.
O'Rourke said one key to the success of the assessments is that the teams follow up to keep the projects prioritized for the communities.
"That kind of helps. When we start the process they all know it doesn't end when the team leaves town," she said.
The team returns to the community six months after the report is done and again after a year.
The report on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation was presented last fall. Luanne Belcourt, director of the Chippewa Cree Development Corp., said the report mostly identified issues the government and organizations at Rocky Boy were already working on or considering, but it helped to confirm or reinforce the importance of the issues.
"We were pleased," she said. "It's the most updated comprehensive assessment we have."
Some of the report's recommendations are being acted on or were being done before the report was done, such as working to increase tourism, bringing a branch bank to the reservation, and working to create a business district. Others, like building a community center or youth center, are being looked into, Belcourt said.
Tom MacLean, owner of State Farm Insurance in Chinook, said his town's assessment helped prioritize projects and confirmed the importance of those projects.
"There's always been a consensus on major issues that have been needed to be addressed. It's nice to see those confirmed," he said.
The assessments were started by Montana Rural Development Partners Inc., which was created in 1993 to strengthen rural economies. Rural Development Partners closed earlier this year when it was unable to continue finding grant funding.
Montana Economic Developers Association took over the project, hiring O'Rourke, who had been Rural Development's assistant director, to coordinate the assessments.
The Chester workshop will start at 7 p.m. at the Wired Inn. People from any community that participated in an assessment are welcome to attend, Erickson said.
On the Net: MEDA resource team assessments: www.medamembers.org/resourceteams.php
Come Home site: www.montana-jobs.net/comehome