For Valley’s Young Professionals, a Recovery in Fits and Starts

By Beacon Staff

The conventional wisdom, according to most economists, is that the United States is currently enjoying a gradual, but fragile, economic recovery from the damaging recession of the last few years. Montana is also widely expected to begin to see economic growth during the second half of this year. But while sweeping generalities may be comforting, the on-the-ground realities of the economy in the Flathead are harder to parse.

At a recent meeting of the Flathead Area Young Professionals – a group dedicated to fostering networking and socializing opportunities within the valley’s younger, working community – interviews with several people revealed observations of a local economy still largely struggling, despite the broad optimism of its workforce.

“A lot of people are hopeful,” Nicole VanDort, an escrow officer at Alliance Title & Escrow Corp. in Kalispell, said. “They’re pretty hopeful as to what the market’s going to do this year.”

VanDort, 31, found “last month was a huge month,” for her work, chalking it up to first-time homebuyers trying to take advantage of tax breaks set to expire soon.

Re-sales are where the valley’s real estate market is rebounding, according to VanDort, particularly short sales, when the bank takes an offer on a home to avoid foreclosure.

“Those are really good deals for buyers,” VanDort said. “That’s where we’re seeing our jump.”

But as others interviewed for this story agreed, the market for new houses and demand for new building continues to be sluggish.

“As far as new construction and things like that, there hasn’t been a whole lot,” she said. “We’ll see what happens, we’re only a couple of months into the year.”

As a CPA candidate at Swiftcurrent Consulting and Accounting, Katy Croft, also the treasurer of the Young Professionals’ board, is reminded daily of what a tough year 2009 was as she prepares the tax returns of her clients. But her observations of the local economy also defy easy characterization.

“Some are doing fantastic and others are struggling,” Croft, a Flathead native, said, adding that tourism-related businesses seem to be maintaining while construction firms are doing everything possible to stay afloat. She attended an economic outlook seminar last month by two researchers from the University of Montana, and found their predictions of modest growth in 2010, “a little more optimistic than I am.”

Croft, 28, notices more small business owners taking on day-to-day operations that would have previously been delegated to office administrators or bookkeepers in order to cut costs. She also sees some young people beginning new, modest ventures on their own in the form of self-proprietorships.

“There are a few small, little businesses popping up, but it’s more like a photographer or consulting,” Croft said. “People may be tired of waiting to find a job and are starting a business for themselves.”

A woman employed at a hotel, who declined to give her name, said despite healthy crowds during the peak months of summer, the lodging industry in the Flathead remains fairly cutthroat, with different hotels locked in ongoing battles to see who can lower rates the most. This price war extends so far as to force rates below the well-known per diem lodging allowance of government employees, a move that she said makes it questionable as to whether these hotels even profit from charging such low rates.

Sitting at the same table, Bruce Hoover, who runs his own advertising, marketing and Web design firm, thisisbruce.com, said he has seen an uptick in his industry, though mainly from clients living outside Montana. The slow economy, however, has motivated some businesses to take care of tasks they might not have time for otherwise, like improving their Web site.

But he has also talked to prospective clients holding off on making those improvements until business picks up.

“I think people are a little tentative right now to pull the trigger,” Hoover said. “I don’t know if it’s a sign things are improving or not, but at least I’m getting the phone calls.”

And while health care is among the handful of industries that have weathered the recession relatively well, Tagen Vine, executive director of the Northwest Healthcare Foundation, said Kalispell Regional Medical Center still gleans details about the economy.

After a steep drop-off, more patients are opting for elective surgeries, he said, deciding to fix a shoulder, remove a cataract or opt for other procedures they had been previously putting off. New services on offer, like a surgical oncologist and a neonatologist, are also drawing patients who previously had to travel outside the valley for treatment.

Yet both Vine and Dave Creamer, the development manager for Intermountain, a non-profit serving children under emotional distress, were surprised to find that philanthropic donations have continued to be strong, as if those enduring difficulties have renewed their effort to help others.

“We’ve been fairly encouraged, even in the worst times, with people’s generosity,” Creamer said.

Vine has witnessed the same trend.

“We had more donations last year than the year before,” he said. “In Montana, during hard times, people really step up.”

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