Tester tours Missoula stimulus projects, holds public meeting


by Rob Chaney

Mayor John Engen had a concise explanation for Sen. Jon Tester of Missoula's new North Higgins streetscape.

"It's for fellows our size and larger to walk side by side without anyone getting injured," Engen joked as he led the senator on a tour of the new 20-foot-wide sidewalks between Broadway and Alder Street. The creation of 15 good jobs, better bike lanes and room for restaurants to set out streetside tables were also benefits, he said.

Tester was in town on Monday to see the project's results and hear from other Missoulians about how the economy fares. He got a thank you from Worden's Market owner Tim France, who helped convince the city's Business Improvement Board to take on the $1.4 million project even though it scrambled downtown traffic for much of the summer. Tester supported the federal stimulus bill that provided the money.

Brent Campbell of WGM Group recalled how when the national economy cratered two years ago, his engineering firm lost 35 percent of its business.

"Things have stabilized now, but the stimulus was important to bridge that gap," Campbell said. "We're seeing more private activity coming on, but there's still plenty of need for infrastructure. We've just scratched the surface."
At the Missoula Public Library, a roomful of 110 people let Tester know what else was on the to-do list. Campbell and First Interstate Bank senior credit officer Hal Fraser went to bat for the TIGER II discretionary grant program, from which city government hopes to land $15 million to renovate the Sawmill District millsite along the Clark Fork River.

Fraser added that Congress should continue its support of Small Business Administration appropriations and a little-known program of "Recovery Zone" bonds that underwrote $15 million in financing to Missoula projects.

More projects are in the wings if financing can get freed up, said Missoula Community Development Corp. vice president Heidi DeArment. The regional business incubator was surprised to see funding requests from many local firms who'd previously been major donors to programs like Missoula Children's Theater. DeArment said the challenge now is to sort out which longstanding businesses have the flexibility or opportunity to adapt to the tougher economy.

But once those firms are identified, DeArment said they need help combining state and federal business help. She asked Tester to unkink rules that prevent companies from getting both local and national financing.

The library crowd had a variety of other issues they also wanted Tester to hear about. Kimm Copeland and Mike Crill told him they felt the town of Libby and its asbestos-sickened residents still wasn't getting the attention it needed. Crill in particular was upset that land speculators appeared to be making money claiming the town was safe and clean when he thought it still had serious contamination issues.

Ray Doucett wanted advice about how to get a weed-pulling invention to market without paying thousands of dollars in patent fees or having some other company steal his idea. Ron Moser argued that the U.S. was wasting money on its "war on terror and war on drugs."

Tester pledged to continue work expanding Montana's alternative energy industry, including geothermal, wind and biofuel projects. He said he voted to de-fund the federal government lawsuit against Arizona's immigration control laws and supported tougher measures against employers who hire illegal aliens. He also called for more predictable inheritance tax rules but asked for more time to review other proposed changes to the expiring Bush tax cuts.

Tester holds similar hearings in Helena and Anaconda on Tuesday.