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Economic roundtable

 

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Officials heard a variety of ideas and comments on job creation in north-central Montana during an economic roundtable in Havre Wednesday, ranging from the government taking a hands-off approach to ideas on what investments could help stimulate the lagging economy. Alan Pearson, president of Wells Fargo Bank in Havre, noted that 80 percent of the people at the roundtable, held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development to get ideas on job creation, worked for government or nonprofit agencies. "The response you're getting from this group, they're government folks, and you're not really getting a feel of what private industry really needs," Pearson said. "My view is you need to reduce the taxes to these small businesses, give them tax credits, reduce the regulatory burden …. The government doesn't generate jobs, private industry does." Tony Preite, director of the state Department of Commerce and a former director of Bear Paw Development Corp. in Havre, said the government can play a role in job creation and in the economic recovery. "You're absolutely right," he said to Pearson. "Government should only become involved when there is a gap that can't be filled any other way that needs to be filled, and there is a good reliable, sensible program to utilize to do that." Matt Jones, the state director of Rural Development, said he is holding community roundtables around the state at the request of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The roundtables are part of a national effort by President Barack Obama to gather information about jobs creation in Montana. The federal government is looking for ideas on where resources should be concentrated to give the best return in job creation. Jones told Pearson that input from private industry is crucial to the effort. He said after the meeting that people with ideas or suggestions can send them to James Pendleton at [email protected] The c omme n t s c o l l e c t e d i n Montana wi l l be sent t o Vilsack and Obama for their review, Jones said. People at the discussion talked about a variety of programs that could help with jobs creation in the area, and talked about strengths and weaknesses here. Gail Rainey of Hill County Electric said that the cooperative has added 12 good-paying jobs in the area in the last six years, six of them in the last two years. "We're one of the success stories in our area," she said. Jim Lyons, di rector of No r t h Ce n t r a l Mo n t a n a Transit, said that the transportation system is another success story. In its first four months of operation, the busing sys tem has grown to transporting 80-100 people a day. That has led to the hiring of three full-time drivers, another full-time driver and administrator and another part-time worker, he said. In addition, many of the people using the buses are using the service to get to and from work, he said, as well as to get to medical appointments or to shop at businesses in the area. Another success is the work being done to ensure the local passenger airline service continues. The airport was in danger of losing its certification due to regulations required by the Federal Aviation Administration. Three workers were brought in for six months by the District IV Human Resources Development Council, and the transit system has volunteered to fill in as needed until the airport board can find a permanent solution. Lyons, who is temporarily taking over as airport manager said that the added help has saved numerous jobs in the area and helped provide air transportation, which, he added, is crucial for economic development in the area. The fact that the air service is continuing preserves four or five full-time Transit Security Administration jobs at the airport, as well as three local jobs with Great Lakes Airlines, the company that provides the air service. Several people talked about problems in job creation. Cole Chandler, who works with the oil and gas company NFR, said natural gas production in the area is down due to the drop in price of the commodity. Chandler said unt i l the price goes up, gas production — and its jobs and local revenue — are likely to stay down. "We are slaves to the commodities market, as farmers are," he said. "We don't make the price of gas as farmers don't make the price of grain." Chandler said there are many roadblocks to oil and gas production, including increasing costs and regulations of permits to explore and produce gas and oil, as well as restrictions on productions such as along the Rocky Mountain Front. Another topic at the roundtable was increasing the production of alternative energy, including utlizing the facilities for research, testing and product ion of biofuel s at Montana State University- Northern and the creation of the Montana Agro-Energy Idustrial Park set for construction southwest of Havre. Dave Henry of Northern Montana Healthcare said the local hospital has seen a decrease in patients following the sate and national trend. "We've seen a slowdown, and we've also seen a change in our payer … as part of the slowdown. A lot of the small employers are dropping insurance so it becomes a private pay situation," he said. The hospital has $20 million in accounts receivable with about half of that in private payment rather than insurance, Henry said. Other problems discussed included finding a dependable workforce — workers don't seem dedicated to their jobs any longer, and finding someone who works for the same company 30 years will no longer happen, said Lori Evans, who operates a small business with her husband in the area. Extending credit to businesses also is getting more difficult, although Christin Hileman said her employer Bear Paw Development, has been giving many loans through its $8 million revolving loan fund. That fund has been so busy Bear Paw is looking into recapitalizing it, she said. Part of the problem for businesses is in tighter credit from banks and closer scrutiny of loans and grants from p r o g r a m s l i k e Ru r a l Development and the Small Business Administration and the Economic Development Administration, said Les Odegard of Independence Bank. Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development, told Jones that the most efficient way to help stimulate jobs may be by investing more in existing programs. Many programs already exist that can help, such as funds Bear Paw h e l p e d B i g Sandy Activities access to build new facilities that will save 58 jobs in that community. "We use them every day, and we know how to access them, so I think the biggest bang for the buck would be for additional money to go to existing programs," Tuss said.

 

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