On ‘Main Street,’ Flathead’s Economy Diversifies

By Beacon Staff

Western Montana’s economy is changing, most notably with its declining wood products industry, and Flathead County plays a major role in influencing what shape that change will take. Officials from the Department of Labor and Industry believe the county has already proven quite capable of fulfilling that role.

The department recently recognized the county as a leader in economic innovation by publishing a 28-page magazine that surveys the Flathead’s increasingly diverse business landscape. Keith Kelly, the department’s commissioner, met with businesspeople and community leaders from around the valley on Oct. 28 to formally introduce the publication, which is the fall 2008 edition of a bi-annual series called “Main Street Montana.” The meeting was held at Kalispell’s Flathead Job Service.

“This is an appreciation to you,” Kelly told the audience.

Flathead County has a history steeped in the wood products industry, with the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber and Plum Creek Timber companies serving as major employers. But as that industry has declined over the years, the county has diversified its economic base accordingly, experiencing substantial growth in sectors such as technology and alternative energy development. The magazine specifically cites Nomad Technologies of Kalispell, local camelina farmer Chris Fritz and Flathead Wood Recycling as companies at the forefront of the technology and alternative energy movement.

In attendance at the Oct. 28 meeting were County Commissioner Dale Lauman, Montana Department of Transportation director Jim Lynch and an assortment of local business leaders. Kelly told the crowd that Western Montana has been diversifying its economy since the 1980s and he thanked Flathead County for taking on a leading role in that evolution.

The state’s largest economic sector has always been agriculture, with tourism, mining and timber rounding out the top four. According to the labor department, in 2002 Flathead was the 27th largest seller of agricultural products out of the state’s 56 counties. In terms of employment, retail trade continues to lead the way for Flathead, in part a reflection of the region’s rapidly growing population. The county’s art, entertainment and recreation sector is the third largest in the state.

Despite the current economic lull which the state shares with the rest of the nation, including a spike in unemployment, Kelly said the state’s increasingly prevalent efforts to broaden its economic base bodes well for the future.

“We’ll get boots on the ground and get unemployment down and get this thing going again,” Kelly said.

Among the features in “Main Street” is a list of the top 10 biggest private employers in the county. For permanent employees, Kalispell Regional Medical Center has the most with 2,020. Meanwhile, LC Staffing employs roughly 2,200 people over the course of a year, including temporary, temp-to-hire and direct hire employees. Of Plum Creek’s 1,300 statewide employees, 1,070 are located in Flathead County.

A section of “Main Street” describes an effort underway to build a regional economic coalition between Flathead, Lincoln, Sanders, Lake, Mineral, Ravalli and Missoula counties. The Department of Labor and Industry was recently awarded the U.S. Department of Labor’s Regional Innovation Grant to assist in forming the partnership.

According to the report, between 2001 and 2006 employment in those seven counties increased by 16.5 percent and wages increased by 39 percent. The report notes that the large increases have occurred despite a 32-percent drop in the number of workers employed by Western Montana’s wood products industry over the past 16 years.

“This is our chance to see what opportunities are out there in addition to the traditional wood products industry,” Kelly said in the report, “and how we can incorporate those opportunities into diversifying the region’s economy.”