Montana’s junior U. S. senator listened to women business owners and managers as well as economic developers during a stop in Havre Monday, with a lack of housing, child care and workers common concerns about business and economic development.
Democrat Jon Tester, making a stop in a series of locations during a congressional recess, said he wanted to talk to women business owners because he has found they have good insight into the economy, and sometimes face some unique challenges their male counterparts do not. The discussion could help him find new ways to help jumpstart the economy, he added.
Several women said the Havre economy is fairly strong, but local businesses face challenges that may not be a problem in many parts of the country, such as a shortage in housing, a shortage of workers and insufficient child care.
Jennifer Kinsella, manager of Holland & Bonine Funeral Home, said she has recruited a new worker to come from Havre out of state — but has to hold a residence empty for her for two months, so she will have a place to stay.
People fall in love with the community and want to come here, but then have problems finding housing and child care, Kinsella said.
“It’s just a Catch-22, ” she added.
Chandra Moomey, manager of Holiday Village Mall, said finding quality day-care facilities that can take new clients also is a major problem.
“Child care is horrible, ” she said.
Christine Holden of Holden’s Hot Wheels said the business she and her husband, Shawn, operate is doing well and expanding to a new location. Their business did well even through the last five years of recession, she said.
“I really don’t have much for complaints, ” she said.
But Holden, and others at the meeting, said one problem is finding workers.
Holden said it is frustrating hearing people are on unemployment when many businesses are looking for workers.
Tester said he has heard that in many places, but he does not know what the solution is. Cutting off unemployment would solve the problem, but that also would hurt the people who are truly trying to find work, he said.
Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said she would like to find some way to fund construction of new housing. That shortage, especially of transitional housing like quality apartments or duplexes or condos, is huge, she said.
“(The shortage) hurts our community to go out and recruit, in any facet of our community, whether Chandra is recruiting new businesses or the college is recruiting students and faculty, (or) somebody wants to move here and relocate their business, ” she said.
Christin Hileman of Bear Paw Development Corp. said finding lenders willing to finance construction is difficult, especially if people go outside of the community. While local banks understand the situation, national banks look at the national situation — where foreclosures and bankruptcies have left a glut of houses on the market — rather than the situation in north-central Montana, where the market is short.
Hileman said a program like one funded through the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, the State Small Business Credit Initiative, could help.
That program allocated $1.5 billion to the U. S. Treasury, which then passed it on to states based on population. In Montana, the Department of Commerce set up the $13 million distribution where the money went to economic development groups like Bear Paw, which then partnered with local banks to make loans to small businesses. Hileman said that, for a five-year loan, the rates to the businesses were about 2 percent.
In six months, businesses had applied for the entire $13 million.
“It really created a lot of opportunities and stimulated a lot of projects in this area and throughout the state, ” Hileman said.
But, she said, it could not be used for real estate.
“We had a number of different developers come to us and ask if they could use the program to address the major shortage we have in rental housing, and, unfortunately, that was not an eligible use of the funds, ” she said.
Tester said money may be available through different programs to help fund that kind of construction, although he and others at the meeting said some of those programs are restricted to projects for low-income people and families.
After the meeting, he said in an interview that he and his staff would look into possible funding including through U. S. Housing and Urban Development, Treasury new market tax credits and Veterans Affairs housing vouchers that could help build rentals for veterans who are having housing problems.
“There’s a lot of different avenues we need to go down, ” Tester said. “I don’t know if any of them will have roadblocks on them or not, but we certainly will check them and a whole lot more to find out if there is opportunity out there to … enhance it so folks can build rental housing. ”