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Economic development experts assess Hi-Line towns

 


Chester residents are gathering today to discuss economic development in their town, in the second of such community meetings in north-central Montana.

Chinook will undergo the same process next week.

They are meeting with a team of volunteer professionals assembled to identify each community's strengths and weaknesses.

"Really, this is a very low-cost alternative, a low-cost solution to significant community planning," said Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp. "Several economic and development professionals from outside of the community come in and spend an intensive two or three days with members of the community."

The program was modeled after one used in other states, including Texas and Wyoming, Tuss said. It was initiated by Montana Rural Development Partners, based in Anaconda. That organization disbanded last month, citing a lack of federal funding due to budget cuts. The assessment program was taken over by the Montana Economic Developers Association. Tuss is president of the association.

Communities initiate the process, Tuss said. Cities must go through a formal application process, which helps determine if there is a high level of community involvement and backing.

The time donated by a team of professionals, including Tuss, that visited Baker last year would have cost about $55,000 if the town had hired a consultant. That's beyond the ability of most smaller towns to pay, he said.

The teams volunteer their time and travel expenses, he added.

They will ask different groups from each community the same three questions:

What is good about the community; what are its advantages?

What are the obstacles to the community's development?

What would the people in the community like to see accomplished to improve economic development in two, five, 10 and 20 years?

Tuss said Bear Paw Development will assist in coordinating meetings in its five-county area, but can't participate in the information gathering. Professionals from outside of the region do the assessment to prevent bias and bring fresh viewpoints.

Bear Paw's planner, Craig Erickson, will attend the meetings, Tuss added.

"Craig is shadowing the team as they make their rounds in Chester and Chinook," he said.

The team will hold meetings in Chinook Tuesday through Thursday.

An assessment was held on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation last fall, and one is set for Big Sandy later this spring. An assessment for Harlem is planned but the date has not been set.

Bear Paw is helping communities interested in the resource assessment get started in the process and prepare for the meetings with the assessment teams.

The teams meet with representatives of different segments of the community, like high school students, senior citizens, government representatives, law enforcement officials, business owners, and farmers and ranchers, interviewing each group for about an hour.

The members of the team represent different areas of economic development, like the Montana Economic Developers Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program, and regional economic development organizations, and the USDA's Resources Conservation and Development councils.

"They all have varied backgrounds, varied experiences. They all bring something unique," Tuss said.

Each member of the team takes copious notes during each meeting. Once the meetings are complete, each team member writes his or her own recommendations, about 15 pages long, as part of the final report. Tuss said the final report should be completed about a month after the meetings.

The report the team prepared for Baker was about 90 pages long, he said.

It is up to the local people to take action once the report is submitted.

"It really is in the hands of the community to figure out how to take the report and make sure it doesn't sit on the shelf for five or 10 years," he said.

Some of the short-term goals identified in the Baker assessment are being acted on by the community, Tuss said.

One was to renovate and decide how to use a historic two-story brick building that once was a hotel. The townspeople are working fairly aggressively at cleaning up the building and finding uses for it, Tuss said.

The team returns to the community about a year after the report is presented. When Tuss returned to Baker this month with members of his team, one "glaring" problem had been corrected, he said.

The Baker assessment pointed out that the area had no organization to promote and coordinate economic development, Tuss said.

"Much to our delight, when we went back this month we found they have started a countywide economic development organization," he said. "Once you have the capacity to do things, things will start to happen."

The program is seperate from the efforts of the Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition. That group is applying for a multimillion-dollar grant from the nonprofit Northwest Area Foundation of St. Paul Minn., which was founded by Louis W. Hill, son of railroad magnate James J. Hill. Money from the grant would be used to develop a plan to reduce poverty in an 11-county region in north-central Montana.

The resource assessments could be useful in writing the grant application, Tuss said.

"What we learn from these assessments could be plugged into the Northwest Area Foundation project," he said.

 

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