History Road Trip

There are offices like Montana West and Anaconda Local Development all over the state

By Kim Morisaki

Anaconda’s downtown is coming along nicely. I had a chance to visit this week for work. Anaconda is one of the places that I usually see from a distance as I race by on Interstate 90 headed to a hockey tournament in Butte or Bozeman, but this time I took the scenic drive from Hamilton through Georgetown to Fairmont Hot Springs. Fabulous! Anaconda’s new economic development director, Adam Vauthier, gave me a tour where I saw examples of their Tax Increment Finance District at work. TIF funds helped new businesses bring old buildings back to life and upgraded streets. Much like Kalispell Brewing, Smelter City Brewing turned a vacant building on the main drag into a beautiful community watering hole and added an art gallery as well. We celebrated Jim Davison’s retirement party at another beautiful refurbished building, Donivan’s, and Adam told me how engineers who work on the environmental cleanup projects in Butte and Anaconda are moving their families to the area. New houses are being built there for the first time in decades. It is a feel-good story that has serious economic impacts of the 9000-plus people who live in Deer Lodge County. One that is likely not to have happened without Jim Davison’s and Anaconda Local Development’s concerted effort for the last four decades.

There are offices like Montana West and Anaconda Local Development all over the state. Some have one or two employees or serve five counties; others serve only one city or specialize in just assisting with loans and business plans. Some are financed by private businesses or utility coops, others by tax dollars. They all partner with their local Job Service or Montana Manufacturers Extension Center or U.S. Department of Agriculture – Rural Development office to make sure that businesses have the tools they need to grow and communities have infrastructure to be healthy and competitive. Cuz’ if you aren’t growing, you are dying. Many of these people are also members of Montana Economic Developers Association (MEDA), which was started by a handful of people like Jim Davison 20 years ago. They focus their efforts to overcome big and small community challenges (like having a 130-acre slag pile from a closed copper smelter as a claim to fame) in order to attract entrepreneurs, large businesses and growing families. Their work often adds chapters to a book many thought was closed.

My backcountry tour of Montana actually started in Bozeman. To get to Hamilton and the Bitterroot Valley, which is also doing well, I decided to take the path less traveled through Wisdom near Bannack State Park and the Big Hole Battlefield. Bannack was the 1862 site of Montana’s first gold rush and the territory’s first capital where Sidney Edgerton served as the first governor. This is where Henry Plummer and his fellow road agents planned their heists and where he eventually met his brutal end at the hands of the vigilantes. It was the definition of the Wild West with every type of commerce imaginable, except a church, which didn’t come until 15 years later! Now Bannack is a highly instructive ghost town. At its peak it was home to 10,000 people. Today it is a collection of 60 historic buildings and hasn’t had a resident in nearly 50 years. When the gold ran out, Bannack should have found itself an economic developer like Jim Davison!

Kim Morisaki is the business development director at Montana West Economic Development, economic gardener, strategic doer and entrepreneur enthusiast.