A project intended to create a roadmap for job creation in Montana came to the Hi-Line Thursday, with Gov. Steve Bullock’s Mainstreet Montana Project looking at Indian Country issues at the Fort Belknap Agency.
Bullock himself could not attend — the governor was visiting troops in Afghanistan Thursday — but he applauded the roundtable in a press release.
“The challenges and opportunities facing tribal nations in Montana are unique and require a thoughtful approach going forward,” he said. “Today’s event is an important step in ensuring that the voices of Indian Country are heard in this process.”
The roundtable coencided with the Milk River Indian Days celebration, and with the grand opening of a new store with products and services from the new mobile device branch of Triangle Communications.
Bullock commissioned the project to present recommendations on how he could implement policies to support a bottom-to-top system where local communities attract businesses and create jobs.
D.A. Davidson & Co. Chairman and CEO Bill Johnstone and Wasington Cos. CEO and President Larry Simkins are co-chairing the project, and expect to look through the data and ideas collected this spring and summer and draft recommendations to present to Bullock early next year.
While Johnson and Simkins could not make Thursday's roundtable, some heavy hitters in job creation and economic development were there. That included Jason Smith, the director of the Governor's Office of Indian Affairs, Montana Commissioner of Labor Pam Bucy, Montana Director of Commerce Meg O'Leary, Montana Department of Labor and Industry Chief Economist Barb Wagner and Governor's Chief Business Officer John Rogers.
Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. which works in a region that includes the Rocky Boy’s and Fort Belknap Indian reservation also attended.
Carole Falcon-Chandler, president of Aaniiih Nakoda College, formerly Fort Belknap College, joined Smith in presenting the opening remarks. Fort Belknap Indian Community President Tracy King spoke at the close.
Economist Wagner gave a list of challenges facing Indian Country for job creation, and some avenues to follow in creating jobs.
A bounce house, food and crafts were set up for Thursday's Triangle Communications store grand opening in its Fort Belknap Shopping Center location. The store is part of Triangle’s mobile telephone branch.
One of the issues she cited is the lack of consistent data, such as different methods of calculating unemployment that lead to one agency saying a reservation has 16 percent unemployment while another might show 65 percent.
She said some ways to increase economic growth would be to increase access to finances and capital — often difficult to find on reservations, as banks and lenders are leery of lending due to lack of collateral or credit history — increase the savings rates of people living on reservations, and bringing more business to reservations to keep money in Indian Country, rather than it flowing to neighboring communities.
The new Triangle mobile store was cited by one audience participant as an example of reservations successfully getting new businesses. That was offset by a discussion of the difficulties in finding trained workers to work at jobs in on-reservation companies, ranging from sales to mining.