Economists for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis anticipate solid employment gains in Montana during 2007, and expect the economy’s natural resources and mining sectors to power much of the growth. Montana has the largest projected employment growth in the Minneapolis Fed district, which encompasses Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, northwestern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Economists predict that overall, unemployment rates in the region will remain steady, decreasing slightly in Montana and North Dakota, and rising slightly elsewhere. They forecast a growth rate of 2.1 percent for Montana. The state’s natural resources, mining and manufacturing sectors are relatively small, but stand out because of their rapid growth, economist Rob Grunewald said. Jobs in natural resources and mining rose 10 percent in the past year. Employment in the manufacturing sector rose 6. 2 percent, on the heels of steady growth in previous years. Manufacturers encouraged by strong sales plan to hire more employees, and invest in new equipment, during 2007, according to economists. In the Minneapolis Fed disTrict overall, housing markets that are weakening stand to slow the pace of economic growth compared to 2006, said Grunewald and economist Toby Madden. The National Association of Realtors expects construction of new homes, or housing “starts,” to have fallen more than 12 percent nationwide as 2006 ends. A decline of 15 percent is projected for 2007. Influences include rising mortgage rates. As the housing market slows, the commercial construction scene is picking up, Madden and Grunewald said. Commercial vacancy rates in the Minneapolis Fed district have been falling in response to business growth.