Open for Business

Montana West Economic Development
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

The rugged, romantic beauty of Montana has forged a special place in the heart of America. Now Flathead County, Montana, is forging a special place for America’s business in Montana, with its pioneer tradition of hard work and business support at every level.

Montana is legendary. And it lives up to its legend, from the peaks of Glacier National Park to dense forests, lush valleys, and the crystal clear water of its lakes and streams. But it’s much more than that. Entering the Union as the 41st state in 1889, Montana has been home to gold explorers, cattle ranchers and mining throughout its history, and the Old West mentality and gritty, can-do attitude due to its fertile soil and natural resources that built the state still benefits the businesses that choose to call Montana home today.

Much of Montana’s economy has been based on mining, manufacturing, and lumber, particularly in the western part where timber and sawmills flourish. Other sectors, such as agriculture and metals, continue to be active, while tourism remains a key economic driver in both summer and winter, with non-residents spending an estimated $3.7 billion in Montana in 2018.

Helping businesses succeed
With this rich history as a background – and under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Meerkatz and his team at Montana West Economic Development (MWED) – 2019 is proving to be another outstanding year of growth for MWED and FCEDA, the Flathead County Economic Development Authority.

Having the fastest growth rate of manufacturing GDP of any state in the nation – and with the Flathead County the second-fastest growing economy in the state – Montana continues to attract many kinds of businesses. And with a labor force participation rate of 62.3 percent – somewhat lower than that of the U.S. at 62.9 percent – Montana also has a higher prime working age of 83.4 percent, compared to the rest of the country at 82.1 percent.

MWED, itself a non-profit organization supported through membership investment, serves all of Flathead County and oversees the area’s economic development projects.

But apart from attracting an array of businesses to its 5,098 square miles and three incorporated cities through a positive attitude to industry, Flathead’s natural beauty also rewards those among the ranks of business who are outdoor enthusiasts, who love their golf, and water recreation in summer and skiing in winter.

Strategic direction
With a mission ‘To cultivate growth through the support of new and expanding businesses in the Flathead Valley,’ Montana West Economic Development is well on its way to accomplishing the goals in its 2019 Strategic Direction. With business startup, retention and expansion, infrastructure and development projects, and lending solutions and grant assistance among its six Core Priorities, MWED is also focused on ‘Core Objectives’.

These include maximizing and growing MWED’s efficiency, capacity and membership base, motivating Flathead County investment by improving and increasing regional assets, and consolidating MWED “as the informational HUB to those forming, launching and expanding companies.”

Along with its Core Objectives MWED’s business-promoting Core Strategies for 2019 include raising awareness of the organization’s services, offering business classes, an expanded loan program, promoting membership benefits, connecting Opportunity Zones to developers, government contracting, mentorship and much more. With many favorable factors and Flathead County ranking as the third-largest micropolitan for the second year in a row (that is, an urban area with population of 10,000 to 50,000) – Montana West is ideally positioned for growth.

Business in the park
Purchased in 2012, the site of the Glacier Rail Park continues to evolve. Ideal for an expanding industrial business, all lots have necessary infrastructure including on-site rail, municipal water, wastewater management, gas, power, and fiber optics, along with graded site pads ready for construction.

Located on the northeastern city limits of Kalispell, the county seat of Flathead County, the park’s location is ideal for an undertaking with transportation needs. With immediate access to U.S. Highway 2, and about 10 minutes from Glacier Park International Airport, it is well-suited to handle plenty of freight inventory. On track, the City of Kalispell and FCEDA received funding through a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to help fund the Kalispell Core and Rail Redevelopment Project.

Zoned as heavy industrial, Glacier Rail Park’s lots range from two to nine acres, making them suitable for many business needs. And with its location in the Great Northern Corridor of BNSF – the largest freight railroad network in North America – Flathead is perfectly sited for heavy industry to readily access markets on the West Coast, the Great Lakes, and in Canada.

Together with Glacier Rail Park, all of Flathead County is ideal for business. With a skilled and available workforce, the County is served by the highly-rated Flathead Valley Community College. Working with many of Northwest Montana’s manufacturers to develop an ‘Advanced Manufacturing Certificates Program’, the college prepares students for careers with the area’s many existing and new manufacturers.

With the facilities suiting so many kinds of operation, including wood products, heavy industrial, agri-processing, purchasing cooperatives, and energy support, Flathead is finding many businesses eager to operate there, and to take advantage of the lowest energy costs in the country. Not to mention that the state itself is accredited with the ’10th Best State Business Tax Climate.’

Big place, big vision
As one of just five states across America without a sales tax and operating in the black, Montana continues to draw a range of companies with visions of growing their business. With more entrepreneurs per capita than any other state – ranked as Number One by the Kauffman Foundation for its highest entrepreneurship rate – Montana itself, its accessible elected officials, and the MWED are all enthusiastically pro-business, helping to make Flathead the third-fastest-growing small county in America.

Part of MWED’s vision for a vibrant and cohesive community involves supporting more mixed-use development, and The Kalispell Core and Rail Redevelopment Project and Trail is a prime example of this. “The City of Kalispell and Flathead County Economic Development Authority have invested $40 million in the redevelopment of the Kalispell Core Area and creation of the Kalispell Trail, replacing the train tracks through the heart of the city with a trail and linear park,” according to Kalispell: A Profile for Opportunity. Offering a mix of retail, dining and entertainment, “the Core Area plan includes housing options suited to people of all income levels and stages of life, making the Core Area the perfect place for community to flourish,” says kalispellcoreandrail.com. The Kalispell Core & Rail Project won the Innovation Award through the Montana Economic Developers Association.

Other development projects include Making MT: Manufacturing & Technology Expo & Maker Faire, which won an award at the International Economic Development Council; the Community Broadband Initiative; PowerHouse Flathead; Glacier AERO, Montana Cooperative Development Center, for which MWED are the western region’s representatives; the implementation of three Opportunity Zones – the Granary District, the Park District, and Courthouse South – and other incentives.

From making business loans when there is a gap in financing, to offering incentives like tax credits, grants, and lower interest financial products, Montana West Economic Development is there to help companies every step of the way. For assistance with workforce training, business planning, relocation, business or agricultural grants, government contracting, mentorship and more, the friendly and helpful team is there on call for any company interested in a new place to grow.

Montana is open, and welcomes a new generation of pioneers – those business men and women with vision and determination.

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