By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
As the U.S. Border Patrol has beefed up its resources along the Canadian border, the influx of new personnel has not only made the Hi-Line more secure, it's brought a welcome boost to local economies.
Since December, more than 60 Border Patrol agents have been assigned to new positions in northern Montana, joining the 20 who were transferred here in the aftermath of 9-11. The economic and cultural impacts of the agents and their families have been felt by businesses and schools in a number of communities.
"It's not just one impact," said Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., a nonprofit regional economic development firm. "It has a significant ripple effect. You have people moving into these areas, and those people need housing, their children need to be schooled, they need to buy groceries. When you add that ripple effect up, the impact on northern Montana has got to be significant."
Havre is the headquarters for a Border Patrol sector that includes all of Montana and part of southern Idaho. In northern Montana it has offices in Havre, Shelby, Scobey, Plentywood, Malta, Sweet Grass and St. Mary. Border Patrol sector spokesman Mark Kemp said the impact of the new positions will be lasting because the posts are permanent assignments.
"You could safely say it should have a major impact because they are all permanent, full-time posts," he said. "It will certainly have impacts on school systems, housing, businesses and other areas."
All Border Patrol agents have pay scales of G-11 or higher, Kemp said.
A G-11 employee with three years' experience earns about $46,500 a year, according to a U.S. government Web site.
"Economists talk about the dollar turning over," Tuss said, referring to each dollar being respent within a community. "If you think the dollar turns over two or three times, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's a very significant and positive impact on our region.
"Clearly, these are people who, through the quality of the jobs they have, are active, contributing members of the community - and they make a big difference."
Some of the agents recently assigned to the Hi-Line are Montana natives, Kemp said, adding that all of the agents requested positions here. All agents are initially assigned to posts along the southern border, Kemp said. After three years, they are eligible to put in for vacancies across the country. The system is designed so that if more than one agent requests a particular assignment, normally the senior, more experienced agent will get the post.
The result is that all of those assigned to the Havre Sector are "veteran, experienced agents," Kemp said.
For some agents, making the move to a smaller community was a matter of personal choice. Havre Sector training officer Dave de la Torre said his family grew tired of the crime and traffic of larger cities, so he requested an assignment in Havre.
"My wife and I wanted to move to a small town," he said. "A lot of times the schools are better, the community is better, it's just a better place to live."
De la Torre organizes training exercises for all of the agents assigned to the Havre Sector. He and his family moved to Havre Dec. 24, spending Christmas in a hotel. His daughter is enrolled at Havre High and his son is a computer technology major at Montana State University-Northern.
Previously a supervisor Border Patrol agent in Arizona, de la Torre said he hopes to retire here. He's an 18-year Border Patrol veteran who was born in Los Angeles.
"I promised my wife we'd stop moving," he said. "This is the fourth sector I have worked in."
The de la Torre family is just one of many who have moved to Havre since December. Although Kemp could not divulge the number of agents assigned to each community across the Hi-Line, real estate agents in Havre said they believe that about 15 new agents have moved here since December. The result has been a sudden boost in residential home sales and school enrollment.
This year marks the first since Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller became superintendent eight years ago that there has been a net increase in students from one year to the next.
"Our enrollment has stabilized," Miller said in a recent interview. "I believe that means our economy in Havre has stabilized also. People are staying here." He attributed at least part of the increased enrollment to the influx of new Border Patrol personnel.
Real estate agents say they saw an increase in home sales during the winter months, typically a slow time.
"Obviously, they've been coming in and buying houses, and houses in the upper range," said Paul Kuka at Flynn Realty. "Most of them have been in the $100,000 range and up. Definitely, there's been more of those upper- range houses moving. It's been good. It's not a runaway, but it sure helps."
Betty Ann Morgan of Property West said the influx has generated a considerable amount of business during a typically slow time of year.
"I think we've had about a total of 15 families move here," she said. "We've moved homes that don't normally move during the middle of winter. Ninety-five percent of them have already purchased, and the rest are in the process."
Tuss said he has heard from other economic development professionals that the addition of more Border Patrol personnel has given a boost to the housing markets in other communities as well.
Anne Boothe, executive director of the PhillCo Economic Growth Council in Malta, said she believes nine Border Patrol agents have moved to Malta in the past several months.
"It definitely affected the housing market, and also had a positive effect on the schools," Boothe said, adding that the benefits created by the new jobs are not solely economic.
"One of the biggest things is it added a lot of diversity to our community," she said. "They have very interesting, diverse backgrounds. Most of them are younger, which is really a bonus."
Malta residents prepared a special welcome for the agents after they arrived, Boothe said.
"We had a Homeland Security reception for all the new officers and their families. We put together food baskets for them. It was neat - something they had not seen in other communities they were stationed in," she said. "We wanted to let them know about the goodwill that came from our residents and our businesses."
Gary Anderson at Northwest Realty in Malta said even a few new jobs have a large effect on a small community.
"They all kind of showed up at the same time," he said. "It's been a boost. It doesn't sound like a lot of people, but in a small community, it has quite an impact. It sure stabilized our market, helped keep property value up. It cleaned us out, anyway, all the listings we had."
Kemp said the new positions will impact not only the community where they are stationed, but also neighboring communities.
"This year, we filled positions from Scobey all along the Hi-Line - Plentywood, Malta, Sweet Grass - very nearly every town where there's an established Border Patrol station," Kemp said. "And these have an impact not only on the town where it is, but also on the surrounding areas. The station at Sweet Grass-Shelby has an impact on Conrad and the Cut Bank area. There's a lot of bleed-over that will affect other areas as well."
New personnel require new buildings, and the Border Patrol has plans to revamp its facilities across the Hi-Line. The plans could open the door for additional jobs and income for Montanans.
"We have a great need to update existing facilities because of the number of new personnel we have received," Kemp said.
The General Services Administration is seeking bids to build five structures ranging in size from 10,000 to 15,000 square feet. Boothe said she knows of two Montana companies that have submitted bids or plan to bid on some of the construction projects.
"There are solicitations out or that are forthcoming to replace all Border Patrol facilities on the Hi-Line," Kemp said. "The end result will hopefully be brand- new facilities and brand-new infrastructure for all of the Border Patrol on the Hi-Line.
"The current efforts would bring us new stations at Havre, Malta, Shelby, Scobey and Plentywood as well as a new sector headquarters (in Havre). In most cases this will probably be new construction - new actual physical building - or in some cases retrofitting existing buildings to suit our needs. "
Construction will likely begin this summer, Kemp said.