This morning I got a call from an out-of-state manufacturer who was considering relocating his business to the Flathead Valley. This is the third call I’ve received from businesses wanting to move here in the last six weeks. The rate and quality of these types of calls has increased significantly over the last year as typically we only have a few inquiries annually, with maybe one or two actually pulling the trigger. I suspect the reason for this uptick in serious inquiries is due to the valley’s rapid population growth in general and to some extent Montana West Economic Development’s efforts to really promote our free services and loan program.
People who want to move or start a business here generally fall into three categories: they grew up here and want to move back; they vacationed here and realized they could do their business here while enjoying the Montana lifestyle 52 weeks of the year; or they recently had a child or other relative move here. While the first two reasons have been common throughout the last decade, it has only been in the last 12 months that I have noticed people following their children to the Flathead. I’m not sure if it’s a trend, or just a weird coincidence, but perhaps it makes sense to think that after adding 5,000 people to the county’s population over the last few years, there may be others called to join them.
Old-school economic development was primarily focused on getting companies to open new production facilities by providing financial incentives — they called it “chasing smokestacks.” In the southern part of the country, this is still a very common practice, in which large corporations are given free land, buildings and/or cash in trade for creating jobs. The opposite of this method is “economic gardening,” in which local organizations cultivate an environment conducive to entrepreneurship and nurture local startups by offering advice, introductions and other resources.
Montana has always taken a more conservative approach to attracting businesses, offering grants to those that create well-paid jobs regardless of whether they are relocating or of the homegrown variety. Property-tax abatements for manufacturers and tech businesses are another tool that cities and counties can use to encourage investment and new job creation. These incentives eventually pay for themselves as well-paid employees and new businesses ultimately pay property and income taxes well in excess of the cost of the initial grants. Montana West has assisted many expanding enterprises, such as SmartLam and U.S. Optics, to make the most of these programs. Developers and businesses making large investments in certain parts of Kalispell are able to take advantage of the New Market Tax Credit program, and just recently Kalispell was nominated for the new federal Opportunity Zone designation.
Most of our work is focused on fostering local businesses planning to grow, but it is always fun to get that unexpected call from outside of the state and hear the story of enthusiastic people researching their options as they plot their move to our beautiful corner of the country. While not every call results in a business move, answering the phone is the first step.
Kim Morisaki is the business development director at Montana West Economic Development, economic gardener, strategic doer and entrepreneur enthusiast.
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