By Tim Leeds
Predicting a noticeable improvement in Montana's economy within two or three years, Montana's chief business officer, David Gibson, said he has the challenge of figuring out how to make that happen.
But there are so many ways to stimulate the state's economy that he and others just have to decide what to focus on first.
"We have to look at is the glass half full or half empty," he said.
Gov. Judy Martz appointed Gibson as her chief economic adviser in July, and he was the keynote speaker Friday at the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce's 93rd annual meeting. He and Martz recently made public the state's new plan for economic development.
Gibson likened his situation to that faced by his personal hero, Chesty Puller of the U.S. Marine Corps, who retired in 1955 as a general.
In one engagement, Gibson said, Puller's staff told him they were surrounded by the enemy. Puller said that was good because they could fire in all directions.
But, "We're not really going to shoot in every direction," Gibson said. " We need to get focused."
Montana's government needs to work on economic fundamentals, he said, and if it does, communities should see improvement quickly. Gibson said he expects Montana to move into the middle rankings of states by economic indicators within 10 years if it focuses on the basics.
After the meeting, Gibson said people in communities will see improvements in three years. Otherwise, he added, his office won't be doing its job.
"We have to absolutely be accountable. If nobody can see any progress in three years, we should go away," Gibson said.
Gibson said the fundamentals the state must focus on include ensuring a world-class telecommunications infrastructure is available, and strengthening the work force and education system.
"One fundamental is education," he said. "If your K-12 system is lousy, you don't have a chance."
He added that the university system is also crucial to development. Gibson said Montana has a good education system now, but keeping it from failing is critical.
"We're facing what I think is a precipice. We need to address it," he said.
Montana needs to work on strengthening existing businesses, Gibson said. That's not as fast, doesn't have the "flash and sizzle" of attracting large new businesses, but is the way to truly strengthen the economy, he said.
But the state also needs new businesses. To attract them, local communities need to recruit, Gibson said.
"At the end of the day, you're the ones who have to sell people to move to your community," he said.
Gibson invited comments and constructive criticism from the public. People's comments about his proposed plan for economic development have ranged from optimism to skepticism.
"By the way, I'm one of those people (who are skeptical)," he said, adding that the 38-page plan doesn't mean anything if the state doesn't get anything done.
He said his office needs the people of Montana to make suggestions, noting what's good about the plan and what's wrong with it.
"If you've got criticism, I want hear it," he said.
The state has made a commitment to improving the economy, and there's no turning back now, Gibson said.
"We've said we're going to make it happen and said so publicly," he said. "We can't say we were just kidding at the end of the day."
On the net: Montana Framework for Economic Development: www.discoveringmontana.com/gov2/css/econdev/default.asp