By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
A team of economic and community development experts is coming to Hill County next week to meet with groups and begin preparing a report on strengths and challenges in the county and possible actions to improve it. And it's preparing the report cheaply - for the cost of room and board.
Craig Erickson, planner for Bear Paw Development Corp., said he hopes the report presents ideas for Hill County that are as exciting as those presented to other communities.
"Can we capture lightning in a bottle twice? I don't know, but I sure hope so," he said.
For instance, a team that examined Liberty County backed an idea to start a baby carrot cooperative and that idea is moving forward.
A team that visited Chinook urged construction of a youth club after parents and kids complained that kids there don't have enough to do.
Teams have recommended that several communities put up billboards to let travelers know about attractions in their towns.
Gloria O'Rourke is one of the members of the team coming to Hill County. She said the reports not only list assets and ideas, but help show how to achieve the goals.
"The report isn't just mumbo jumbo. It's practical, has real ideas and gives contacts for resources," she said.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said the report is a valuable piece of information.
"Putting a dollar figure on the report we're getting back, it's worth $25,000, and that's a conservative estimate," he said
Erickson said hiring a consultant to prepare such a report would cost $100 to $150 an hour, including the time to write the report, plus transportation and room and board.
"For next to nothing, you're getting that level of a report," Tuss added.
The process, coordinated by the Montana Economic Developers Association, is modeled after one used in other states, including Wyoming and Texas. MEDA assembles a team of community and economic development professionals, all from outside the community studied. The professionals donate their time to prepare the report.
The assessment team will ask groups representing different sectors in the community, like education, health care, youth, agriculture and business, three questions: What are the strengths and assets of the community? What are the problems and challenges in the community? What would people like to see accomplished in the next two, five, 10 and 20 years?
After presenting their initial findings at a town meeting Wednesday night, each team member will prepare a section of a report.
The report will be presented in a meeting six to eight weeks after the initial meetings. The presentation includes a discussion to prioritize the needs and actions identified.
The team for Havre consists of: O'Rourke, an employee of MEDA; Andy Poole, deputy director of the Montana Department of Commerce; Brent Poppe, chief of the Agriculture Marketing and Business Development Bureau of the state Department of Agriculture; Evan Barrett, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp.; Linda Reed of the Montana Community Foundation; and Marty Byrnes of the private firm CTA Architects and Engineers.
The Havre Area Chamber of Commerce recently compiled a survey of area businesses to identify strengths and weaknesses of operating in Havre. That survey will be offered to the assessment team.
Erickson is encouraging people to go to as many of the team's listening sessions as possible. People at past assessments have learned something about their community and have been able to contribute at virtually every session, he said.
Erickson said the report will carry more weight when it's used as part of grant applications if more people attend the meetings.
"It can pay dividends very quickly," he said.
Tuss, who is president of MEDA, added that the state Department of Commerce allows communities to use the meetings documented in the report as the first of two public meetings required for Community Development Block Grant applications.
O'Rourke has coordinated all 14 reports written in Montana, starting in Cut Bank in January 2002. She has been a team member for seven community assessments.
A team will start an assessment in Harlem on Dec. 2.
O'Rourke said it is important that everyone's group is represented at the meetings.
"You just wouldn't want to be left out," she said.
The assessment process starts with the team members touring the area.
Then the team will question representatives of different sectors of the community at meetings in Gildford, Rudyard and Box Elder. Seven meetings will be held in Havre.
"So that's our first job, is to listen, listen, listen. Then we have the town meeting and tell everyone what we've heard," O'Rourke said. "Then we go back to our desks and write a report."
O'Rourke said the process has created action in all the communities they were written for, both directly and indirectly. Some of the actions have been outlined in the assessment reports; others have been outside the reports' recommendations.
"The communities, after the process, can think for themselves," she said. "They use the momentum from the assessment to take action.
"It's a good tool to get things rolling," O'Rourke added. "Sometimes just getting the people together and rallying the troops will spur action."
Some of the reports endorse moving forward with ideas that were already being worked on, such as establishing a branch bank at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation or giving a high priority to the construction of a visitors center at Bear Paw Battlefield south of Chinook.
Others are projects that come from discussions with the resource teams, like building a community or youth center at Rocky Boy, which had an assessment last year, and opening places for the youth in Chinook, like a youth center, Boys & Girls Club or a skateboard park.
The reports list every topic that people raise at the meetings. The Chinook report includes discussions of mosquito control, reducing underage drinking, increasing local shopping and filling empty businesses in downtown Chinook.
Another suggestion was forming a port authority to stimulate economic development in the area.
Erickson cited the proposal to create a baby carrot-processing cooperative as a success story from the Liberty County assessment.
The Montana Agriculture Development Council approved a grant to pay for a feasibility study on the cooperative, which Erickson said could provide a new high-value crop for farmers with irrigated acreage from Glacier to Blaine counties and create a processing plant with 60 to 100 or more jobs.
"That's what this is all about is getting people with ideas together with people with expertise in getting things done," Erickson said.