By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
An increase in economic activity, including a boom in construction, is raising cautious optimism that the Havre area's economy may be picking up.
"I've seen what would probably be described as an uptick in both the local and regional economy," said Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. "It just feels better. It's not hot, but it's warm."
Dave Clausen, president of Clausen & Sons, said his Havre-based construction company has more business in town right now than it ever has.
"We've just been getting our share of nice jobs. Our volume is going to be higher than it's ever been," Clausen said. "There seems to be a lot more optimism than I've seen in the last 10 years."
Paul Polzin, director of the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, said he has no data about a change in the economy of north-central Montana, but an increase in optimism is understandable.
"It really doesn't surprise me," Polzin said.
He said an increase in construction on the Hi-Line mirrors the rest of the region.
"Construction has been booming all over the place. Not just the Hi-Line but all over the state and the Northwest," Polzin said.
He said increased gas and oil exploration due to increased gas prices may be part of the increased economic activity.
Low interest rates, which are expected to start rising in the near future, could be stimulating economic activity, Polzin said.
The first good crop for farmers in six to eight years also could be a reason, he said.
Elevators said many wheat farmers are getting 40 to 60 bushels an acre. Over the previous six years of drought, some farmers took a complete loss on crops, and few made the average of about 35 bushels an acre.
Polzin said the actual impact of increased ag production is difficult to track, because increased yields don't necessarily translate into immediate spending. The actual economic activity depends on when the crop is sold and when the farmers make purchases, he said.
Tuss said he thinks the better crop year is a major factor in the increased optimism and the increased economic activity.
"It's amazing what happens to Main Street and generally to the population at large when the ag sector is doing relatively well," he said.
He said other factors are probably helping: construction of a long-planned $4 million Applied Technology Center at Montana State University-Northern; efforts to possibly build a special events center in Havre to host athletic events, conferences and conventions and other events; the renovation of Blue Pony Stadium; state Department of Transportation plans to rebuild First Street; the opening of new businesses in the Holiday Village Shopping Center and the Atrium Mall; and the opening of new businesses like the Fastenal construction supply company west of Havre.
Tuss said the combination of factors illustrates the complexity of economic development: It has been described as a 1,000-piece puzzle with the pieces all of one color.
"It's not one thing that drives the economy. It's thousands of things," he said.
Brad Lotton said his business, Lotton Construction, has shared in the activity.
"It's been real busy all summer long," he said. "It looks like it's even going to be a good fall and winter."
Lotton said he's been working mostly on commercial remodeling.
"A lot of the businesses are sprucing up," he said. "A lot of businesses are doing new buildings."
Steve Bailey of Head & Bailey Construction said his business also has been booming.
"I've got plenty of jobs going, plenty of guys and things to do," he said.
He said much of his work relates to damage caused by the June 22, 2003, hailstorm in Havre - fixing roofs, siding, broken windows and other damaged property.
"That brings a lot of money into the economy," he said.
He said that with the good crop this year, he expects to be bidding on jobs for ag producers too.
Clausen said his company normally works in the area between Williston, N.D. and Shelby, but this year seems to be getting more local work.
"We've kind of held the out-of-town boys out of here for a while. It's kind of nice," he said.
That has translated into more jobs, he said.
The last few years Clausen & Sons has employed about 24 people.
"Right now we're right at 30 and that's as many as we've ever had," Clausen said.