Bear Paw lists successes, hears from Commerce director


February 21, 2020

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Keynote Speaker and Montana Department of Commerce Director Tara Rice speaks on the importance of connections between the government and communities Thursday during Bear Paw Development's annual meeting at the Havre Inn and Suites.

Bear Paw Development Corp. had its annual meeting Thursday and talked about the work the economic development agency did in the past year and featured a keynote speaker, Montana Department of Commerce Director Tara Rice.

Bear Paw Executive Director Paul Tuss said last year was a big year for Bear Paw Development.

Some of the highlights Bear Paw Development had in the last year were coordinating $16,731,056 in funds through grant writing, revolving loan fund investments, bank financing and other sources for business start-ups and expansions and community enhancements, including government infrastructure.

"That figure represents more than the total of the previous three years combined," he said. "To say that we had an impact last year is perhaps an understatement, nevertheless, we were proud of our work, and I believe that we've really lived an informal challenge to get stuff done."

He said they "got stuff done" in 2019, and as of Thursday they have 16.7 million reasons to celebrate, adding that Bear Paw Development was also able to leverage $159 from outside sources for every $1 local government investment and helped the private sector to create and retain 159 jobs.

Since Bear Paw Development started in 1969, it has approved 386 loans to entrepreneurs to finance business start-ups and expansion.

Some of the projects it worked on included helping new owners purchase and operate 12th and Front Airbnb, Malta Opportunities Inc. of Malta, The I.G. Baker House of Fort Benton, Top Crop Farms LLC of Harlem, The Sugar Shack of Rudyard and the Highwood Wastewater Lagoon.

The meeting also provided information for attendees, reminding them that the U.S. Census 2020 is coming up.

"Simply in the Bear Paw District, there is $70 million distributed every year, federal dollars in our five-county region, based on formulas the federal government based on population. That's $700 million over the course of the decade that this particular census is good for," Tuss said. "So in March, next month we are all going to be getting something in the mail that encourages us to take the census. This year it is going to be electronic. We are going to be encouraging people to be going to the internet and filling out the census."

Rice complimented Bear Paw during her keynote address.

"Bear Paw Development is admired around the state for being the best at this work, really leading the way for the rest of us in the state to learn from and to look to see how it's done and how it's done really well," she said.

Gov. Steve Bullock appointed Rice, who was raised on a ranch north of Choteau, director of the state Department of Commerce in March 2019.

She was active in Teton County 4-H and Choteau FFA as a youth, graduating from Choteau High School before earning degrees from Seattle University and Yale Law School.

She had experience in both private and public economic development before her appointment to the Department of Commerce. She served in USDA's Rural Development, working with rural infrastructure, housing and business development. She went on to lead the work of the White House Rural Council, driving efforts for rural investment across federal agencies and with state and local partners. 

Rice said Montanans have some advantages, with one thing people have going for them in Montana is that people really love where they're from.

She said all good economic strategies are local, and if they are all local, "I think, it's also true the only way to be effective at those local strategies is partnerships."

People have a good partner in the government and in the Department of Commerce, Rice added.

"(In the Department of Commerce) we are first and foremost an infrastructure agency," she said. "When you turn the tap on in a small Montana town more often than not that clean tap water is available because of a grant from the Department of Commerce."

She said a number of bridges that she passed on her way here were by the Department of Commerce.

"At our core, we are an infrastructure agency," she said, adding, "Department of Commerce is also a housing agency,"

Last week, it announced it made an investment in a Hi-Line housing unit, the Eagles Manor here in Havre, for the preservation and rehabilitation of 32 affordable units, she said, adding that in terms of dollar amounts, housing is the department's biggest area of work.

She said the department also administers federal rental assistance programs to make sure that veterans and families can access a home as well as support low-income veterans and first-time home buyers through affordable mortgages, down payments and other tools to help other families secure a home.

"Like the infrastructure, that housing work is at the, I say the dirt, ground level, the bedrock level to ensure economic stability and opportunity in our communities around the state," she said. "In addition to that core infrastructure and housing we also work to support business development. All of this work requires strong working partnerships with private business, local and tribal government."

But these business development programs, in particular, are all about projects and partnerships, she said.

"The business programs we run are targeted to help businesses take a step they otherwise wouldn't be able to take, whether it's right at the startup stage or taking a step to export a broad, the idea is to help a business to turn a corner that otherwise they might not be able to do," Rice said. "And thereby support them in creating jobs and opportunities around the state."

She said the idea of public-private partnerships is not just a theoretical concept for the department in which it describes everything they do in the business development world.

The department invests in promoting Montana as a tourism destination, by providing grants to develop amenities here in the state, she said. 

She added that this is not about getting the most people to Montana; it's about maximizing the economic impact of visitation to the state.

"In 2018, the number of visitors to the state went down by about 1 percent, but the visitors expense went up by 11 percent, which we took to be a good thing," Rice said. "The preliminary numbers for 2019 show that we've kind of moved by a couple percentage points on both, basically held visitation steady while we kept that higher level of visitors expend, which is exactly what we want for maximizing the economic impact."

She said the goal is to spread visitation around all parts of the state to increase economic impact and to spread it around all four seasons.

She added that the department has different campaigns in different seasons, such as a warm-season campaign and a winter campaign, so people don't just come out in the summer, but that visitation is smooth all four seasons of the year.

"There is kind of a debate in economic development, what comes first? Do you try to create jobs to draw people to your community and increase economic activity? Or is there a strategy around drawing people to kind of build more activity and economic activity in your community?" she said. "There is actually pretty good arguments that fairly often it's the latter and the investments that we are able to make to develop amenities in our towns around the state to draw visitors are some of the same things that draw families, entrepreneurs and businesses."

Tourism can be one important element of a healthy economic mix, Rice added. 

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Executive Director Paul Tuss speaks Thursday during Bear Paw Development's annual meeting at the Havre Inn and Suites.


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