In a series of meetings last week, Flathead County community and business leaders met with an economic development expert to develop a strategy on how to revive the county’s economy. The meetings come a year after economists called the Flathead the “epicenter of the recession” in Montana.
Montana West Economic Development, which is spearheading the project, hired Eric Canada, a partner of Blane, Canada Ltd., a Chicago-based consulting firm, to help create a county-wide marketing plan.
Canada’s services were funded by a $20,000 grant awarded to Montana West Economic Development by the Montana Department of Commerce. The funds were matched by the Flathead County Economic Development Authority, Montana West Economic Development, the cities of Columbia Falls, Kalispell, Whitefish, their local chambers of commerce and Glacier Park International Airport.
“When we wanted to do this project, we wanted to reach out to the person that had the expertise and who will give us a product that is constructed for our area,” Kellie Danielson, president and chief executive officer of Montana West Economic Development, said. “Eric is very seasoned and has had over 25 years of experience in niche marketing for economic development.”
Canada says he will help Flathead’s communities define their priorities and learn how to attract investment while retaining and expanding current industries.
“Tourism is a big important business, but we need other businesses that are bringing in capital from outside the communities,” he said. “We’re in the process of launching the effort to create a marketing plan.”
Canada says the development of a cohesive marketing plan will help direct the Flathead Valley toward economic recovery.
“It’s just like when you’re adrift at sea or you go out on a drive and don’t decide where you’re going,” he said. “You’ll end up somewhere, but it may or may not have anything with what you would like to do or what you would like to have as a community.”
However, Canada says little will come to fruition if the communities fail to band together.
“Time will pass and opportunities will come and go,” he said. “Everyone has limited resources, so the best way to succeed at this is for everyone working together.”
According to Canada, his firm’s primary responsibilities end at architecting the marketing plan. Implementation, meanwhile, rests on the shoulders of the communities, although Canada will return to over the next several years to monitor the progress.
“Our activity is fairly defined at the front end,” he said. “Once we deliver the plan, they’ll have everything they need to go forward without us, except maybe a shoulder to cry on and a little coaching.”
Danielson says that to help ensure implementation, Montana West Economic Development will oversee the formation of a task force.
“We asked the communities to select one or two people to represent their community on a task force and then we also asked some of our investors and board members of Montana West who specifically have something to contribute from a marketing perspective to economic development,” she said.
Prior to Canada’s arrival, Montana West Economic Development commissioned Brad Eldredge, Director of Institutional Research at Flathead Valley Community College, for a preliminary study of the region’s economical development. Eldredge’s report revealed a gamut of positive and negative factors in the valley.
“A lot of it confirmed what I had already suspected in terms of how many jobs the county lost,” he said. “I knew we weren’t doing very well, but it was a little bit shocking.”
As of April, the county’s unemployment rate stood at 12.2 percent, with the most jobs lost in the forestry, mining and woods product manufacturing sectors. While Eldredge feels the economy is turning the corner, he worries about a lack of diversification in the region’s businesses.
“The Flathead area was so dependent on home construction and wood products manufacturing that those are two industries that I don’t think are going to turn around very fast,” he said. “What I see as a threat is if other parts of the economy don’t grow to take up the slack, you’ll have this overhang of unemployed folks.”
On a brighter note, Eldredge found that the economic slump had failed to diminish the lure of Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake.
“I was surprised that tourism did so well last year, given the economic circumstances of the country,” he said.
Because tourism is such an important part of the region’s economy, Eldredge suggests the Flathead look at the development of places such as Skagway, Alaska, a town that has successfully marketed itself as a tourist destination.
“It was a community that had a real dependence on tourism, more so than us, and I thought that the way they were marketing themselves was really well done,” he said. “I’m not sure that we do that.”
Eldredge is encouraged both by Canada’s involvement in the county and by the formation of the business improvement district in Kalispell.
“That’s very positive because there’s a lot of small businesses or medium-sized businesses in this valley that benefit a lot from tourism but none of them have the resources to individually promote ‘Come to the Flathead,’” he said. “But if they do it as a group and pool their resources, they’ll all benefit.”
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