Making the Most of Economic Development Possibilities

Montana West Economic Development has proven to be a powerful toolbox for local businesses and entrepreneurs

By Molly Priddy
Kalispell city manager Doug Russell, left, speaks with Jerry Meerkatz, president and CEO of Montana West Economic Development, during the groundbreaking of the Glacier Rail Park on Aug. 22, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Montana tends to draw the inventive and the entrepreneurial, fostering a can-do spirit within a sense of community, a place where knowing your neighbors also usually means knowing the local bank manager or any myriad types of small business owner.

Harnessing this community spirit is a key aspect for Montana West Economic Development, and during the MWED annual meeting last week in Kalispell, the organization made its value to the business community clear.

“Sometimes when you just tell people this is what you do, you tend to be a little bit shy because you don’t want to be seen as blowing your own horn,” said MWED President and CEO Jerry Meerkatz. “This time, I wanted to be a little bit more deliberate.”

MWED met on Dec. 13 to present its annual findings, showing how its services have impacted the local economy and helped business owners find a foothold to get started.

And as the Flathead continues to pick up economic speed — the county has one of the fastest growing population rates in Montana, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and a 4.5 percent unemployment rate — the services at MWED, a nonprofit, can help create a blueprint for local entrepreneurs ready to take their shot as well as those already in business but looking for a new angle or expansion.

MWED’s overarching goal for 2018 is to cultivate growth through support of new and expanding businesses in the valley. Meerkatz said the approach to this goal is to show how MWED has helped and supported businesses up to this point, and especially in 2017.

In 2017, one of the organization’s goals, along with the Flathead County Economic Development Authority, was to help develop the Glacier Rail Park and Kalispell Core Area. Rail Park construction started this year, and CHS is expected to be relocated next year. In 2019, the railroad tracks in the middle of Kalispell should be removed and replaced with trail. This project is expected to include 80-100 jobs.

Another one of MWED’s departments, the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, or PTAC, helps business owners maneuver the red-tape-heavy world of government contracts. According to Doug Bolender, the government contracting advisor, PTAC counseled 262 clients in 2017.

From that group, 147 clients received 579 awards, amounting to $24,526,284 in contracts. Nearly $9.8 million of those were fire contracts awarded in August, September and October in correlation with Montana’s blazing wildfire season.

MWED’s popular loan program is also a bright spot of 2017. Outgoing loan officer Brad Walterskirchen and incoming loan officer Stephanie Juneau reported that MWED’s loan committee approved more than $1.4 million.

These clients are located all over the Flathead, Juneau noted, including businesses in Whitefish, Kalispell, Columbia Falls, Hungry Horse, and Bigfork.

“We do not close our ears, our eyes, or our minds to any kind of business,” Meerkatz said after the presentation.

The loan program helps un-bankable loans become bankable, Meerkatz said, and works closely with many local financial institutions. When Dr. Sylvia Owens, a local dermatologist, wanted to expand, Glacier Bank suggested she take the idea to MWED first. Meerkatz said that kind of partnership is “worth its weight in gold.”

The coming year is one of momentum and opportunity, and Meerkatz said MWED plans to host specific classes for members on how to start and grow a business in a planned way, along with a class on helping people find the true value of their business as they begin to transition out of ownership and into retirement.

“We’d provide objective, third-party information that will help you understand the true value of your business and how to take that value and increase it before you retire,” Meerkatz said.

MWED also writes grants, a free service to members. Meerkatz said these services are all part of economic development, which is a methodical process that requires patience to plan and execute. Having the help and expertise at a place like MWED is key, and Meerkatz said they love the work.

“To be able to do this great work on behalf of the county as a nonprofit, we need the backing of the community,” Meerkatz said. “And when the community says, ‘Can you write a grant for us?’ and they become a member, now my job begins to show them that their investment in MWED and economic development is a long-term investment that will provide a huge payback.”

For more information, including how to become a member, visit www.dobusinessinmontana.com or call (406) 257-7711.

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