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Tester will fight relocation of co-op center


Senate Minority Leader Jon Tester said today he won't let the Montana Cooperative Development Center move to Helena without a fight.

"I think this is just another outgrowth of that attitude that we need everything in Helena," the Big Sandy Democrat, a member of the center's advisory board, said today. "I think the whole thing smells really bad.

"I think it was a politically motivated move," Tester added.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development state director Tim Ryan announced Monday that the center, housed on the Montana State University-Northern campus since it was created in 1999, would be moved to Helena as part of the state Department of Agriculture. The center will be moved Tuesday.

The center is housed at Northern, but is a seperate state agency. It has two full-time employees.

"I understand the concern of the people of Havre, but the center was formed to serve the entire state of Montana and the best way to do that is to make it its own entity," Ryan said today.

Tester said taking any action will be difficult because of the short time frame involved, but that he intends to contact county commissioners in eastern Montana, other members of the center's advisory board and other elected officials to try to stop the move.

The center was initially funded by a grant from USDA Rural Development. The grant application was written by Greg Jergeson of Chinook, grant writer with the MSU-Northern Foundation and a state senator at the time. Jergeson, who left the Senate because of term limits in 2001, was elected to the Public Service Commission in 2002. He could not be reached for comment today.

The purpose of the center, its mission statement reads, is to develop, promote and coordinate educational programs, technical assistance and research on the cooperative form of business in rural Montana.

Jergeson also helped get $65,000 a year for the center in state appropriations, but most of the center's funding has been through USDA Rural Development grants. The center shared a $299,400 grant with western Montana's Mission Mountain Market Cooperative Development Center in 2001, and received a $291,652 grant in 2002.

Former director Suzanne Tilleman, who left to become a business teacher at Northern in 2001, said in October 2001 that the center received eight grants for a total of about $460,000 from 2000 through 2001.

Alex Capdeville, Northern's chancellor, said he wasn't involved in the decision to move the center.

"I didn't have much choice in it, to be honest. I was kind of told," he said. "I don't think it's a good idea."

Capdeville said that while losing the center won't impact the university very much financially, its goal matched Northern's goal as a rural university very well.

"I think they think we took it to a certain level and now want to move it there," he said.

Capdeville added that the university will probably continue, through its business department, to help cooperative development. However, the university will no longer have the state funding to use for matches for grants, he said.

Nothern business teachers Brenda Skornogowski and Tilleman have been advising the center.

"I've loved working with the center. I've been involved since 1999 since it was just a gleam in a lot of people's eyes," Skornogowski said. "I think its been good for Havre and good for Northern, and Northern and Havre have been good for the center."

Ryan said that while the the university has done a good job to incubate the center, moving it to Helena will allow more guidance for center director Ty Duncan. A board of directors will be appointed by the Department of Agriculture to advise him, and that board will eventually decide where to permanently locate the center, he said.

Duncan declined to comment but said in a prepared statement: "MCDC is a statewide center for cooperative development. This move will not limit our ability to serve rural Montana. MCDC has seven part-time cooperative development technical assistants located throughout Montana. This network allows us to provide hands-on assistance to develop cooperatives in rural communities across the state."

Luanne Belcourt of the Chippewa Cree Development Corp. said she doesn't understand why the center needs to be moved.

"Why are they moving when it seemed to be an ideal situation?" she said today. "I don't see the need and I don't know why."

The center helped the development corporation find funding for the Rocky Boy Native Craft Cooperative, created two years ago, Belcourt said. A staff person from the center comes out twice a month to help the cooperative, which has 25 members, she said.

Belcourt added that with the modern communications technology available, she doesn't expect the move to hurt the craft cooperative's work with the center.

Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said he hopes the move won't hurt the center's ability to help rural areas. Tuss, who also serves on the advisory council for the center, said Bear Paw will continue to assist the center.

"It's a shame that we're moving what I consider to be a fundamental development opportunity of rural Montana," he said. "I think the Montana Cooperative Development Center has proven to be a very valuable tool to the development of cooperatives."

Tester said he thinks the move will hurt the center's ability to serve rural Montana.

"I really think they've shot themselves in the foot. They've just made it that much harder (for the center) to access rural areas in eastern Montana," he said.

Western Montana has a cooperative development center, he added.

Moving the center to be administered by state and federal agencies could also be a problem, Tester said.

"You kind of get swallowed up in the bureaucracy of Helena and become pretty insignificant in some cases. That's the potential with this," he said. "If this dies a slow death we've wasted a great deal of money and lost a great opportunity."


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