The Vibrant Futures staff got a snapshot of the thoughts and opinions of a few dozen area residents, both politicians and regular residents, that can help in forming a regional before picture to inform and measure changes or improvements made over the next three years.
Parents, students and business owners gathered in the Lincoln-McKinley Primary School cafeteria Thursday night. As everyone entered and signed in, they were given a metaphorical $100 amount that they had to split among several bags that represented various aspects of the community, such as public safety, education, economic development and transportation.
Attendees also filled out a survey about where they live and what they do in the region.
After Information and Outreach Manager Eryn Nissen explained the goals and benefits of the Vibrant Futures consortium, the room was broken into four color-coded groups to discuss assigned topics — including what is working, what is not working and suggested improvements — followed by an open discussion.
Rick Dow, the Havre City Council’s representative on the Vibrant Futures board, was a part of a group discussing energy and the environment.
That group’s energy discussion largely centered on Montana State University-Northern. Northern student Maure Murdock praised their biofuel program. Dow said that Northern’s programs that are training workers for the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota were a major asset.
Former Northern student Rob Everingham said the school has many great alternative energy programs, though their graduates don’t stay around.
“It seems like we're training these kids to develop this energy in other places, ” Everingham said.
Dow said that government money ruins energy development, mentioning Solyndra and adding that “the efficiency of private money would be helpful. ”
Krystal Steinmetz, from Bear Paw Development Corp., added that local natural gas production and prices are down because of the massive surplus coming out of North Dakota.
On the environment, the group said they appreciate clean parks, recycling programs that are slowly gaining momentum and the community’s “broad commitment to conservation issues, ” as group member Katherine Williams put it.
Dow said he was glad local regulations don’t require emissions tests for automobiles.
“I know people are chomping at the bit to change that, but for now it makes it cheaper to live here, ” Dow said.
As far as what could be done better, everyone agreed that the drinking water quality was an issue.
Murdock said a friend of hers developed kidney stones while spending a semester in Havre.
Dow said that he was interested in fixing the problem, but that keeping up with Department of Environmental Quality mandates made that impossible.
“We're taking money that could have been spent on cleaning your water and we are using it to fight global warming, ” Dow said.
During the open discussion, Havre’s schools — from Havre public schools to St. Jude Thaddeus School to Northern — received unanimous praise, a sentiment the larger group agreed with later.
They also lamented the abundance of bars and casinos, seemingly at the expense of having anything more child-friendly to do.
The other groups covered a wide variety of topics and summarized their discussions at the end of the meeting.
On private business development, the group seemed mixed. Some felt there are plenty of good, educated workers and great customer service. Others felt the opposite was true. The most concrete suggestion on the topic was to find something to do with the former IGA building on U. S. Highway 2.
Housing in Havre, according the group, can be difficult to find, though it is cheap and the aging buildings have a lot of potential.
Steinmetz said she had heard about a particular problem with middle-income housing.
Though education was almost universally praised, a few felt that the Office of Public Instruction funding formula could use work and resented Northern being adopted by MSU nearly 20 years ago.
People had many suggestions to improve local health care, including more focus on preventative care, encouraging exercise and healthy eating, and to attract more specialists so patients don’t have to leave town.
Some meeting attendees said there is too much red tape and feared the onset of Obamacare.
Transportation, the group thought, was good but could be better. North Central Montana Transit, van services for seniors and veterans, and Amtrak were all mentioned as assets for the community. Air travel, the only north-south means of public transportation except for the NCMT Great Falls bus, can be “expensive and inconvenient. ” Rachel Dean, with the Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line Foundation, suggested “better infrastructure for bike riding. ”
Paul Tuss, the executive director of Bear Paw Development, said that the Hi-Line transportation — Amtrak, Essential Air Service, North Central Montana Transit — is largely subsidized. He added that the community needs to remember that those subsidies might not be around forever, as we nationally decide if these programs are worth the expense.
At the end of the dicussion recap, Nissen told the attendees that the evening’s discussion, along with the others from across the region, would be available online at http://www.vibrantfuturesmt.org and encouraged people to stay in touch either through that website or through the group’s Facebook page.
The information gathered at the meeting, Nissen said, would be entered into a scenario modeling program that would be able to create reports anticipating the consequences, both good and bad, of any hypothetical pursuit.
Similar meetings will be conducted across the Hi-Line to get the thoughts and opinions of the other communities.
The group of Vibrant Futures staff and local representatives will meet early 2013 to take a look at the regions thoughts and try to find ways to address people’s concerns.