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Kegel speaks at annual Chamber meeting

The Havre Area Chamber of Commerce held their annual meeting Wednesday where board members and staff talked about the past and coming year, and Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel gave a presentation on Northern's role in the community.

Chamber Executive Director Shelli Sayers said the mission of the Chamber is to stimulate local economic growth, improve the business environment in Havre and the surrounding area, and to generally represent the interests of their members.

Sayers said the Chamber had 24 more businesses sign up to be part of the association last year, and their events, new and old, went extremely well, many of them under the leadership of previous Chamber Director Jessica Fagerbakke.

She said she wanted to take a moment to honor and thank Fagerbakke, who was director for most of last year, and gave her invaluable guidance when she joined the Chamber and took over as director recently.

"I definitely want to give her the acknowledgement and recognition that she is due, because the majority of the events including the Bear Paw Marathon came to fruition because of Jessica. ... I personally am forever grateful to Jessica for her guidance and expertise and coaching along the way," she said.

She said the Chamber also sold well over $750,000 in certificates last year, certificates that can only be spent in Havre businesses, and thus will stay in the community.

Sayers said they, unfortunately, did have an instance last year where someone was attempting to make fake certificates to take advantage of businesses, but the fraudulent certificates accounted for less than one percent of what was sold legitimately.

As for the coming year, she said, they are looking forward to many Chamber-run events, particularly this year's Bear Paw Marathon in June.

She also said they are looking to continue expanding the Chamber's presence and reach of their member businesses.

"Our goals for 2024 are similar to our goals for 2023," she said. "We would like to grow our chamber membership, build upon relationships, support Downtown Havre Matters and increase our social media and online presence."

Sayers then introduced the incoming president of the Chamber's board, NorthWestern Energy Havre District Manager Adam Johnson, and last year's president Maia LaSalle of Alluvion Health.

Johnson said he's been on the board for three years and he feels privileged to serve as president and continue working with his fellow members.

LaSalle said she wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the work and achievements of outgoing Chamber Past President Matt Wertheimer, "someone who is a staple in this community. Who has dedicated their time, their energy, to making Havre thrive and making our community better."

She presented Wertheimer with a commemorative plaque and a Don Greytak print for his years of service for the Chamber and the community as a whole.

She then introduced this year's keynote speaker, Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel, who she called a champion of the community who, in his career as an educator and administrator, was instrumental in the development of the campus' facilities, students and environment.

"MSU-Northern has recently been recognized as having the highest median, starting, graduate salaries, and being the number one school in the state for upward social and economic mobility," LaSalle said.

When he got up to speak, Kegel said his achievements would not have been possible without a tremendous amount of help from people at Northern and he wanted to take a moment to acknowledge all the people who helped make the campus better.

Kegel said one of his biggest jobs as chancellor is to impress upon people the importance of the college to the local community and Montana as a whole, and they have plenty of evidence of how they positively affect the economy.

He said an impact study was done 10 years ago which showed that the college has created hundreds of jobs by training quality students to do skilled labor around Montana, producing tens of millions of dollars in personal income and expanding the local and state tax base.

"Northern's cranking out students that this state needs," he said.

He said annual wages across the state are measurably higher due to their influence and the students they bring to the community are an investment in the community.

Kegel said they provide quality education without the exorbitant cost many other colleges and universities inflict on students, which often put students deep in debt to get the education necessary to make their way in the world.

"When I go to a Board of Regents meeting I feel like this and walk into the room like a peacock because every chapter president wants to be able to say about their institution what we can," he said.

Throughout Montana, he said, employers are clamoring for the kind of employees Northern students become, and in order to keep doing that, and increase enrollment, Northern needs to provide an atmosphere that draws students.

He said the campus received $7 million in the last legislative session for renovations to the campus, especially to Pershing Hall, one of their oldest buildings.

Kegel said the building has always been difficult to navigate, particularly for people with disabilities or mobility issues, and they will now be able to install an elevator in addition to updates that will make the building easier to get around in.

He said this is the biggest building renovation investment he's seen in his time at Northern, and that's not all.

He said the state also granted them $25 million for a new building, the Aurora Complex, a student recreation center that Kegel believes will vastly improve the atmosphere of the campus and draw more prospective students.

Kegel said the structure will include a black box theater, book store, kitchen, and a gym designed to be easily converted into a large event space that can be used for large functions.

In talking to students, he said, they consistently found that they also wanted a space with workout and fitness equipment, so that will be included as well.

This project, as well as the Equine Center they are planning to build, are part of a more-than-decade-long project to make the campus more attractive to potential students and increase enrollment.

The first phase included the football stadium, which Kegel said drew incredible support from the community, support that made it far easier to make a case to the Legislature that this project was worthwhile.

He said local legislators like Paul Tuss, D-Havre, and Russ Tempel, R-Chester, were instrumental in getting the Legislature on board, as were the Hill County Commissioners who advocated for Northern, and he thanked them for helping secure this, the biggest appropriation the campus has ever seen.

"It's happening," he said. "It's not a pipe dream anymore."

Kegel said the Board of Regents has approved the project to begin the design phase with architects and engineers, a phase that will likely take about a year, before the project goes out to bid.


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