By Ross Markman
As a candidate for mayor, Bob Rice had reservations about the city's relationship with Bear Paw Development Corp., a full-service economic organization that, among of other things, lends money to prospective businesspeople unable to secure a loan otherwise. Now, as the town's mayor, Rice's perspective has done a 180.
"I've checked them out since then. I think they do a good job and are a vital part of this community," Rice said today.
Over the years, Bear Paw's infrastructure department has worked with Havre in developing its sidewalks and water, sewer and storm drainage systems things that make a community work, according to Paul Tuss, the corporation's executive director. In exchange for Bear Paw's services, Havre pays $20,000 a year in dues.
"We're able to provide all the communities throughout our district with the professional services they have to pay for. And we do it at clearly a reduced rate compared to what the city would have to pay otherwise," Tuss said.
It was at an October debate between Rice and Democratic candidate Mike Shortell that the question was asked whether the city should continue its association with Bear Paw. While Shortell supported maintaining the 30-plus-year relationship, Rice said he wasn't so sure.
Rice said then that he had spoken with a local businesswoman who claimed that she was mistreated by Bear Paw.
"She thinks that Bear Paw Development is a hoax," Rice said at the debate. "She thought that Bear Paw Development did very little to help her stay in business, and everything they could to help her out of business."
Rice said he talked with another woman who informed him her car had been repossessed by Bear Paw with her personal belongings still inside.
Rice said today that he's spoken with Tuss several times since the debate. He said he's also chatted with several members of the Havre business community, each of whom vouched for Bear Paw's credibility.
"I'm not saying those people didn't have complaints. They probably did. But the one lady I talked to, she had such bad luck, if she had a duck, it would have drowned," Rice said. "Bear Paw says in those situations, they did what they could."
Tuss said he's encouraged by Bear Paw's improved relationship with Rice, who has since joined the corporation's board of directors and housing board.
"I've spoken to Mayor Rice many times. I have no reason to believe that the positive relationship we've had with Havre for over 30 years won't continue," he said.
Since the campaign season, Tuss said, Rice has a better grasp of Bear Paw Development's day-to-day functions.
"I know that our organization since 1968 has done a whole lot of good for a whole lot of people throughout northern Montana," Tuss said. "Mayor Rice now has a fuller understanding of what we do. I don't think there was any malice intended from candidate Rice several months ago."
As far as repossessions are concerned, Tuss said a loan from Bear Paw Development is the same as a traditional bank loan. If the borrower's business fails and they're unable to pay the money back, property repossession is a possibility.
"We're often referred to as a lender of last resort," Tuss said.
"Because we take on loans that banks might find too risky, we have to be held to very strict financial accounting standards," he said. "There are loan agreements. All of the traditional instruments used in a bank, we have."
Rice admits he was unaware of all the details of the situations he brought up at the October debate and said he looks forward to continuing the city's relationship with Bear Paw Development.
"I think I feel better about it. I just had to take Paul's word for it. And I think he was very honest with me," Rice said. "Bear Paw is a real valuable commodity to Havre. I don't think we can do anything without them."