Desperate Measures in Desperate Times

By Kellyn Brown

On Jan. 8, two of the Flathead Valley’s largest employers announced massive layoffs in a day of reckoning that left another 345 people without jobs. There is little to do but shake your head and hope that collectively we find a solution to stem the bleeding.

This region owes much of its prosperity to the men and women who work in the construction and manufacturing fields. There are fewer of them now. What appeared to be a modest slowdown in both sectors now resembles a screeching halt. Just last year overall unemployment here was reported at 3.7 percent; now it’s almost twice that and climbing.

For years the Flathead Valley boomed, contractors struggled to find laborers and sawmills hummed. There were plenty of jobs. But now fewer are building homes. The demand for wood has diminished, and 2009 has begun like 2008 ended, with more people out of work, struggling to pay bills and defaulting on their mortgages.

As the nation falls deeper into recession the Flathead has fallen even further. It would behoove us to band together and approach the faltering economy with desperate determination.

Some of us can do more than others. First and foremost the best and brightest local economists and public officials need to step forward with dramatic, even unorthodox, ideas. They need to get our governor’s and U.S. delegation’s attention, whether it’s by starting a petition or even busing the recently laid off to Helena to provide a grim anecdote of what is happening here. They need to call out those politicians who they feel are ignoring our struggles. They need to ask local business owners what specifically can be done to keep them afloat.

Meanwhile, the various organizations that represent said businesses should band together to come up with a uniform program that encourages residents to spend locally. Area merchants are struggling. Their holiday sales were flat or down from last year. Some remain optimistic about the summer, when tourists arrive and, with it, most of their sales.

But between now and then, in this shoulder season, there could be a more coordinated effort by organizations, such as our local chambers, to grab the few dollars that are being spent.

Across the country, when it became apparent that the Christmas shopping season would be a struggle, communities came together to encourage residents to shop at locally owned stores and spend on locally owned services.

In Montclair, N.J., for example, more than two-dozen businesses launched the Shop Local Montclair campaign. Boutiques and restaurants jumped at the opportunity and a Web site was launched. In central Vermont, the chamber started the Vermont First Campaign and reported some success. San Francisco has gone as far as offering all its local residents discounts at local stores. The Flathead should create something similar and be dogged in its promotion.

Every Flathead consumer should shop locally whenever possible. This isn’t a sermon, and buying many essential goods at larger chain stores is often more affordable and makes more economic sense. But a dollar spent on a local business stays here longer and it may even save your neighbor’s job.

When the national economy gets some legs, manufacturing and construction will once again be in high demand. Until then, how to weather this economic storm should be our first priority. As last week’s layoffs made clear, that storm is now bearing down on Northwest Montana.