At ‘Jobs Roundtable,’ Tester Gets an Earful of Local Economic Woes

By Beacon Staff

Sen. Jon Tester started an economic roundtable discussion with local business people Monday morning stating the obvious.

“I don’t have to tell the folks up in the Flathead the importance of trying to get this economy turned around,” Tester, a Democrat serving his first term, said. “I’m just looking for ways that we can get more people in the workforce and less people in the unemployment line.”

“The only thing I can promise is that we’ll work hard at it,” he added.

But even in northwest Montana, the diversity of businesses represented by the people gathered in a classroom at Flathead Valley Community College, and the differing changes they sought in federal policy to spur their particular industry, underscored how complex and deeply entrenched the current economic morass continues to be, even as the national economy shows some signs of improvement.

The 13 people included bankers, educators, contractors, hotel owners, realtors, hospital executives, entrepreneurs of fledgling companies and executives at some of the Flathead’s largest firms.

Among those present were builders focused on sustainable practices, who praised Tester for introducing his Forest Jobs bill, which would mandate logging on federal land as well as designate new Wilderness in Montana. But they also lamented the tight lending climate and inadequacy of the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help their new businesses grow.

“For a small, upstart business, the climate’s been intolerable,” David Fischlowitz, of Fischworks Building Services, said, adding that SBA’s advice was not helpful. “Ultimately, their turn is, ‘Go to the bank,’ and that doesn’t help.”

“In the last 18 months, it’s been a joke,” Fischlowitz added.

Diane Smith, a former telecom executive and a partner in Whitefish-based North Fork Strategies consulting group, said many federal programs aimed at spurring business growth are aimed at small businesses, but do little to grow new businesses that may not have years of profitability to qualify for SBA assistance.

“Tax credits don’t do you any good until you’re profitable,” Smith said. “How do you get people to put money into small business?”

The discussion, however, wasn’t limited to shortcomings in federal policy; Tester also solicited updates from those present on the state of their industries.

Bob Helder of Robert Ross Construction, who is also a member of the Flathead Building Association, told Tester 18 builders have decided not to renew their membership, mainly because they cannot afford the dues.

“Do you pay the $400 membership or do you buy groceries?” Helder said. “I need to build – I don’t know how to get those opportunities right now.”

Some of the businesspeople present also lamented the broadly bleak economic outlook, saying imminent health care legislation and proposed “cap-and-trade” bills queued up right behind it have many consumers feeling cautious themselves, in light of how much the federal government is poised to spend.

Steven Thompson of Semitool, the manufacturing firm in the process of being acquired by Applied Materials, Inc. of California, talked about competition on a global scale, saying while Montana’s workers are the best in the world, it’s difficult to compete with the low-cost operating environments for businesses offered by foreign governments, with low taxes and fewer environmental restrictions.

“It’s disturbing for me to see that, because there’s no reason the U.S. has to do without those businesses being built here,” Thompson said. “I see the tax burden on these companies is becoming more than they can bear.”

Realtor Paul Wachholz echoed Thompson’s concern and wondered why the federal government was taking on new programs when in many communities people were having trouble simply staying in their homes. In the Flathead, he said, 20 percent of homeowners are “under water” on their mortgages, meaning they can’t get an appraisal on their houses or they owe more than the home is worth.

“We need to stop the socialistic trends of our country,” Wachholz said. “We’re built on the entrepreneurial spirit and we’re not going that way right now.”

Through much of the discussion, Tester remained silent or asked questions, but said little, urging those present to contact his Kalispell office with any concerns or requests for assistance – and adding that the job situation is urgent.

“This really is the biggest issue we face in this country,” he said. “It’s tough to do anything when you don’t have a job.”

In an interview after the meeting, Tester denied the assertion that the shift in focus from healthcare to the economy by Congress was spurred by the recent off-year elections that replaced two Democratic governors with Republicans. Instead, Tester said the most recent unemployment figures showing that jobless rate still above 10 percent was the impetus.

“Nationally, I think, when the unemployment numbers came out, it got people’s attention,” Tester said. “Montana fared pretty well, the northwest hasn’t, but Montana overall has.”

Nor did Tester say a second round of stimulus spending was necessary, mainly because much of the money from the current round is still trickling into local economies.

“We’re investing in some badly needed infrastructure, whether it’s the bypass up here or Going-to-the-Sun,” Tester added. “It’s doing what it needed to do; it’s helping the job market.”