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A wish list for Hill County

After two days of listening, a resource team Wednesday night presented a long list of what people in Havre and Hill County want to see. The hundreds of ideas ranged from high-profile proposals like widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes and building a mulitpurpose center to house major events in Havre to suggestions like building a meat-processing plant and keeping border crossings open 24 hours a day.

With so many projects, "the folks at Bear Paw Development and the Chamber are going to be tired," team member Brent Poppe, a bureau chief with the Montana Department of Agriculture, said at a town meeting Wednesday night where the team presented its initial findings. About 35 people came to the meeting.

The team listed the challenges, strengths and desires they heard about as they met with more than 120 people around the county.

The team, organized by the Montana Economic Developers Association, held 11 one-hour listening sessions in Havre and one each in Box Elder, Gildford and Rudyard. They asked three questions of people representing different segments of the area, like business, agriculture, finance, education and natural resources: What are the challenges in the community? What are the strengths in the community? What projects would people like to see done in two, five and 10 years?

Harlem is having the same process done starting Dec. 2.

Craig Erickson of Bear Paw Development Corp., who helped organize the assessment, said before the meeting that the listening sessions were very positive.

"People recognize a lot of challenges, but they also recognize a lot of resources," he said.

Team member Gloria O'Rourke, secretary of MEDA, said the people at the sessions were very candid.

"They gave us just the information we need to compile an accurate report," she said.

The team said several issues came up at many meetings, including the meetings outside of Havre.

One was building a multipurpose center in Havre able to host tournaments, concerts, conventions and other events.

Another was widening U.S. Highway 2 to four lanes. Some people mentioned an accident that collapsed a bridge west of Chinook Tuesday morning as demonstrating the need for a wider highway, members of the resource team said.

Another was the project to rehabilitate the St. Mary diversion in the Rocky Mountains that supplies much of the water in the Milk River.

Creating value-added agricultural products was another common theme, as was making sure Montana State University-Northern is able to build its planned Applied Technology Center for the College of Technical Sciences.

A common theme in all four communities was providing more opportunity for youths, including building or opening youth centers, improving parks, and providing more activities and public transportation.

Attracting tourists and visitors from Canada also was discussed at several meetings, as was creating public transportation both in communities and between communities and making sure Amtrak and Big Sky Airlines continue to operate.

Another common topic was strengthening Havre's position as a regional economic hub and increasing its draw in Canada.

People talked about improving Havre-Hill County Airport, and upgrading the Hill County Fairgrounds and using it for more events.

Other ideas included creating ways to match young people who want to go into agriculture with older producers who might sell them their operations, creating a regional alcoholism treatment center, and creating downtown housing, possible in the Heritage Center and the Masonic Temple building.

Creating a 24-hour port between the United States and Canada was a major topic, tied in with infrastructure and transportation improvements, increasing tourism and improving Havre's position as an economic hub.

Some of the issues specific to the communities outside of Havre were improving playground equipment in Gildford and signage to attract tourists and business to Kremlin and Gildford; improving the pool at Hingham so it can be used year-round; and improving the basketball courts, and building a senior citizen center and a cultural center at Box Elder.

The members of the team will each write a section of the final report listing the strengths, challenges and possible projects they heard at the listening sessions. Their reports also will list resources for technical assistance and possible funding sources to reach the goals identified.

O'Rourke told the people at the meeting that the city of Whitefish recently hired a consultant to do a similar report, at a price of more than $40,000.

The Hill County report will cost the price of housing and feeding the resource team.

The report will be presented at a meeting in six to eight weeks, where the projects will be prioritized.

Poole said after the meeting that getting as many people as possible to attend the prioritization meeting is crucial.

"If you choose the wrong priorities it won't work," he said.

Team member Evan Barrett, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp., said during the meeting that people need to realize that focusing on a large number of smaller successes is more likely to help the economy than focusing on bringing in a few large businesses.

"People get very enamored of big hits in economic development. That's not the kind of thing that happens very often," he said. "It's not about hitting home runs. It's about hitting singles and doubles."

Others pointed out that there are some potential home runs on the horizon, like the Applied Technology Center Northern is planning to build. The Legislature provided $2 million for the $4.25 million project, contingent on the university finding the rest. Several sources have been found, including a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant and money from private partners.

The MSU-Northern Foundation has provided the remaining amount necessary and is seeking donations to replace its capital.

Another is the construction of a multipurpose center. The city of Havre has obtained a grant to fund a feasibility study.

Poole said the county needs to hit home runs in the area of infrastructure if it wants things like the St. Mary diversion rehabilitation, 4 for 2, safe and accessible railroad crossings, and the Rocky Boy-North Central Montana Regional Water System, which would provide treated drinking water to people in several counties in the area.

A topic at many meetings, including the ones held outside of Havre, was making sure Havre continues to be and strengthens its position as the regional economic hub, rather than letting places like Great Falls or Medicine Hat take its place.

Erickson said before the meeting that it was a pleasant surprise to hear people from the outlying communities say that.

"I was very encouraged by that. They recognize that what's good for Havre is good for Hill County," he said.

Bear Paw Development will have the report available once it is completed, and it will be available online at the MEDA Web site.

On the Net: MEDA resource team reports:


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