Senator told area needs tourism, resource jobs

Sanders County Ledger

by Carolyn Hidy

Area business owners, public servants, and citizens recently gathered to discuss local economic matters with U.S. Senator Jon Tester.  This is the second of three installments.

Gail Patton's interest has always been economic development in Sanders County, the county commissioner told Senator Jon Tester at the recent economic roundtable discussion in Thompson Falls. He was disappointed to lose the cogen plant and its potential to bring economic power and heat to the neighboring lumber mill and community. He is hopeful to see the Rock Creek Mine be developed.
One of the county's advantages, he says, is that it is a corridor. The valley has dams, major power lines, a railroad, Highway 200, and several fiber optic lines, all of which provide jobs. However, the jobs are often with out-of-area contractors that come in only temporarily. He'd like to see more jobs at mills or mines along the corridor, as well as tourism, such as a recent tour that brought people to view the Lake Missoula
ripples on the Camas Prairie Landscape.

Patton commented on the many senior citizens in the area, the successful senior centers, and the transportation system that is now able to take seniors to Sandpoint, Kalispell, Polson and Missoula for shopping, or medical or legal appointments, funded by the Department of Transportation.

Tester said he thought the corridor nature of the Valley "bodes well" for the county's development. "And you need to be congratulated on the bus system. It's critical not only for the seniors, but for economic development.  Throughout rural Montana, transportation is an issue I hear about, and if you've got part of that nailed down, that's great."

Thompson Falls mayor Carla Parks told Tester the main income base for the town is currently coming from senior citizens, Thompson River Lumber, small businesses, and power companies, but said "we are economically challenged and have been for many years. We're tough; and people survive here. We've got great workers, and the heart to make things happen." She feels tourism is one of the keys to economic development in the area. "People have to be introduced to the town, the area, the people, to want to be here. The industry itself is important for the businesses and jobs it supports, but it also will bring people." She thanked Tester for his part in helping acquire funding for the High Bridge, and said it's attractions like that that makes people think about staying here, as do the schools.

"I believe we need to keep Main Street prosperous, and looking prosperous." She said she is not a 'big government person," and private enterprise will sort out the winners and the losers among businesses, but felt government can help by locating government offices downtown, occupying empty office spaces to help give that "air of vitality" to Main Street, rather than building expensive buildings out of town. Once you attract people and businesses, she said, you need to be able to keep them. The aging infrastructure of the town is a concern, especially the septic systems.

She said the federal government has been generous providing grants for city infrastructure. "One of the things that is good about Montana is we can come directly to our senators and representatives and tell them what we need.  "You hear so much negative publicity about earmarks," she said, "but earmarks are the lifeblood of our small local communities. We don't need frivolous spending, but the majority of earmarks are not frivolous spending. They provide safety and infrastructure." She encouraged Tester to "fight the fight on that." Tester replied that the key to earmarks, or appropriations, was transparency, to weed out frivolous ones.

Jim Rexhouse, and IBM retiree who now heads the Sanders County Community Development Corporation, spoke to the twin challenges of sustaining and promoting existing businesses and obtaining funds for social and infrastructure projects. He thanked Tester for helping obtain an appropriation for reconstructing the Hot Springs clinic.

Rexhouse spoke to the value of tourism in bringing people to the valley who then buy property and move here once they see what the area has to offer. A PPL representative reported that the island accessed by the High Bridge received 10,000 visitors last summer, showing the impact of encouraging tourism.

Lawrence Walchuk, who serves boards for several community projects and is manager of Hot Springs Telephone Co., spoke of the many interlocking "pieces of the puzzle" that keep people's ranching, logging, and other businesses afloat. One important piece, he said is to keep government regulations from getting in the way. "Every new filing or paperwork we have to keep up with takes up time and keeps production down," he said, and stressed he'd like to see some of the massive amounts of beetle-killed forest in the state put to use.

The communications business is a very important part of the economy here and worldwide, Walchuk said. "If you're not communicating, you're out of business." He and Rexhouse agreed with Tester that the ability to provide communications technology was a “great equalizer” that allows people work for companies outside the area living here, and upgrading to broadband will be a future need.

Walchuk pointed out that Hot Springs has no major industries, and he sympathized with Parka in that without government grants, there would be no Hot Springs clinic.  "We're dependent on those programs, and we appreciate the help you've been in getting those funds to us," he told Tester.