Sen. Baucus aide attends Bear Paw Developments Hi-Line forum
By Ron VandenBoom
A crowd of about 60 area residents turned out Monday to voice their opinion about what they see as the best and the worst attributes affecting economic development in the Havre area.
Hosted by Bear Paw Development Corporation, the listening session was one of several scheduled to be held around the state to solicit community input prior to the state wide Economic Development Summit to be held at the University of Great Falls on June 29-30.
Greg Eklund, a field representative from Sen. Max Baucus's office, also attended the meeting.
Bear Paw Development Planner Craig Erickson served as the meeting facilitator and prompted the crowd to present their view of what are strengths and weaknesses of the local economy and what serves as barriers to economic development.
Presented as strengths for economic development were the intelligence and work ethic of Montanans as well as the quality of the state's educational system and location near a large potential market in Canada. Also listed were the state's recreational opportunities and a wealth of Native American potential on Indian reservations.
Montana's "wide open spaces" were listed as both an advantage and a disadvantage to economic development as was Montana's "strong sense of independence."
The list of weaknesses was longer than that of the strengths, listing a lack of an adequate highway system, a "brain drain" of talented youth, and a lack of high-wage industry as major issues holding back development in the area.
Also listed were a lack of leadership, lack of promotion and marketing, and barriers to developing Montana's natural resources.
The line between what are weaknesses and what are barriers was blurred somewhat as the state of Montana's telecommunications industry took a hit by being described as antiquated. The crowd also pointed out that it is a barrier for many Montanans to believe that the world of the Internet doesn't affect their lives, while at the same time it is also a fallacy to believe use of the Internet is a panacea.
Highways, both north/south and east/west, also took hits as being antiquated. One person was prompted to claim that "we are so far off of the grid that we will never get a quality north/south transportation system."
Federal farm programs were also not spared some venom as a part of the crowd pointed out that the Conservation Resources Program (CRP) hurt local economies by taking land out of circulation and that farmers that no longer need to buy seed, farm implements, or fertilizer were getting their checks in Arizona.
"Many mom and pop stores along the Hi-Line have had to close," one member of the audience said, implying that they are not getting any of the advantages of CRP.
Also listed as a barrier was what Erickson labeled, "the smallness syndrome," or a strong desire on the part of some people to remain isolated and rural with a fear that growth will lead to change.
Asked what type of activity would generate economic development, the crowd suggested investing in education and cultural endeavors such as art and music. Also listed were a four-lane highway across the Hi-Line, promotion of alternative energy sources, and a greater effort to secure government contracts.
Recurring themes in the economic development picture brought up at the meeting were the development of Native American and reservation industries, including their tourism industry, and the development of a regional water system.
Mayor Phyllis Leonard put in a strong plug for development of the Fort Assinniboine Historic Site south of Havre. Greater support for the Heritage Center and Main Street campaign was also suggested by Havre City Councilwoman, Emily Lossing.