What Should Montana’s Welcome Mat Say?

By Beacon Staff

A state association of businesses has pushed legislation into the Montana House that would limit the on-premise retail sales volume of a related group of businesses.

For an established business with good wholesale distribution in place, this wouldn’t be a big deal – except that those same businesses already have legislated production and sales volumes that limit their growth.

These production/sales limitations brilliantly restrict both growth and new businesses in that market.

One of our newest businesses in Columbia Falls – one started by a young family – finds their business placed in jeopardy by this legislation just weeks before their doors open.

That doesn’t mean the “other guys” don’t have grievances to settle (such as a level compliance playing field), but those grievances aren’t going to be cured by artificially limiting sales numbers.

Even so, it shouldn’t be about one business group over the other – both have the right to do business. I know business owners and employees on both sides. I believe these two groups have much more to gain by cooperating.

The message this situation sends from Helena is what concerns me most.

What’s the message to young families and entrepreneurs?
Last week, we talked last week about what communities do to encourage young families and businesses to put down roots or return to the area. Governments and community economic development groups put a lot of effort into these programs. Meanwhile, legislative proposals that limit the growth of new small businesses fly directly in the face of that work.

My question to those in the State House is this: Does legislation like that proposed in Montana’s LC1429 send the message that Montana wants to send?

To be as clear as possible, what I’m asking is this: Does a law like that encourage young families to stay and invest in Montana’s small communities? Does the legislature realize that when a small business person sees this done to one business niche, they can’t help but wonder if it will be done to another niche in the next session?

The message we heard then
When we moved our family and our business here in the late 1990s, one of the reasons we chose Columbia Falls was the warm response we received from folks around town. When we said we were considering moving here, the typical response was something like “That’s great. We’d be happy to have you here.”

While schools, the Park and recreation opportunities were important, the overwhelming “this is the right place” feeling came from the welcoming nature of the Montanans we met.

The message I heard back in the 90s was not “Be a no-holds-barred success at all costs.” It was “Build it here. Be a good corporate citizen, a good employer, a profitable example for others who want to build it, relocate it or return here, and an asset to your community. Become a member of the family.”

If things didn’t work out or legislation targeted my business, I could always move it out of state because it isn’t tied to a brick and mortar retail location. It’s a by-design luxury and a property of the kind of work we do.

Thing is, brick and mortar retailers, restaurants, microbreweries and most services businesses really don’t have that choice.

What’s the message now?
Small breweries are popping up all over Montana and several are quite successful. If I’m involved in the local government / economic development machinery in brewery towns, I’m wondering why the legislature would want to strangle one of my fastest growing sectors. Those businesses are pushing dollars out to employees, suppliers, bankers, lessors and others – just like other local businesses.

But it isn’t about the breweries. They’re just today’s example.

It’s really about the message being sent by legislation that artificially manipulates markets and worse yet, favors one group over another. It’s a message that other business owners and entrepreneurs look for when they choose a home. Business is hard enough as it is without having to fight off competition from the state house.

Next session, this microbrewery thing might be old news. As a state, will we target another line of business for extermination?

What our legislators do in Helena sets out our state’s welcome mat.

Do you want it to say “Welcome to Montana” or “Build it somewhere else”?

Want to learn more about Mark or ask him to write about a strategic, operations or marketing problem? See Mark’s site, contact him on Twitter, or email him at [email protected].

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