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Montana West Economic Development Looks to the Future

By Beacon Staff

This is quite a time to be taking over an economic development group in Northwest Montana. The timber industry has struggled miserably, the real estate market is trying to get back on its feet and unemployment is just now getting back to manageable numbers, though there are still many without jobs. Kellie Danielson is fully aware of all of this.

Danielson, who became president and chief executive officer of Montana West Economic Development in Kalispell earlier this year, is tasked with finding ways to bring new business to the Flathead Valley in a time of uncertainty. As her predecessors have done, Danielson will also focus on retaining the bright minds already living here, in addition to bringing new ones in. The role of such an economic development group is as important now for the region as it’s ever been.

For Montana West Economic Development’s annual meeting on Oct. 15, Danielson brought in nationally acclaimed business consultant Jay Garner from Atlanta. Garner spoke at the dinner meeting held at the Hilton Garden Inn. Also at the meeting, members of Montana West Economic Development voted on 2010 board members and voted on the 2010 budget after examining it.

Danielson hoped that kick-starting the year with a talk from a consultant of Garner’s stature would help set the tone for what will be an important year – and several years – for Montana West Economic Development. Garner travels throughout the country helping communities find ways to stimulate their local economy. Danielson believes a national perspective is beneficial for her organization.

“We want to take advantage of Jay’s expertise,” Danielson said. “He can help give us guidance and direction.”

In an interview, Garner discussed a dilemma Flathead leaders are well aware of: How does a place like Kalispell, or Whitefish, or anywhere else here attract new businesses in such a competitive global market? How do officials convince a businessman to set up shop in the Flathead when he could choose an urban market or perhaps a foreign destination where operational costs are less?

Montana West Economic Development has long used the Flathead lifestyle as a selling point for new businesses. Many new businesses, indeed, are here because the proprietors love the beauty and recreation of the region. But, of course, the phrase “you can’t eat the scenery” often rears its head in economic development discussions.

Garner, however, thinks the business climate in the United States right now is conducive for homegrown enterprises sprouting up in any number of different geographical regions, and staying put. He said even large global companies are shifting their focus to domestic. As an example, Garner said golf equipment manufacturer PING moved its operations to the United States because of the costs of transporting goods over international borders.

Other large companies, such as Dell and Delta Air Lines, are taking similar actions, Garner said. And more stringent international trade regulations could be on the horizon, thus making overseas manufacturing even less desirable, he said. Furthermore, the recession changed the economic landscape in dramatic ways, creating both obstacles and opportunities not previously available for entrepreneurs.

“What we thought of as normal five years ago will never be normal again,” Garner said.

At a time when many businesspeople are forced to get creative or reinvent themselves, entrepreneurship becomes key. And, as Danielson reminds, “Montana is an entrepreneurial state.”

Individual entrepreneurs will establish themselves where they choose and where the market permits, but for communities as a whole to accommodate and attract entrepreneurial efforts, good leadership is necessary, Garner said. Communities with strong and forward-thinking leaders will seize these opportunities when presented. Poor leadership in both the private and public sector, he said, will let the important chances slip past.

“If you have great leadership, everything comes with it,” Garner said.

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