Business Year in Review – 2019

Looking back at the year's top business storylines

By Maggie Dresser
Fatt Boys Sports Bar and Casino on Sept. 6, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Another Tight Year for the Job Market

Sustained growth has been the story in the Flathead job market for the last couple of years, with unemployment rates continuing to shrink or stay low, and businesses feeling the impact. Last summer several businesses had to adjust hours because they didn’t have enough staff to cover the shift, and contractors found difficulty hiring skilled workers.

The staffing shortages aren’t limited to construction or the service industry, however.

“I can’t find an industry that’s not touched by the shortages,” Job Service Kalispell Manager Laura Gardner said in March. “Definitely we see a lot in the health care field, and we’re always looking for folks in our tourism and hospitality industry, and then, of course, construction.”

David Smith, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association, said staffing is still a major issue for contractors and construction crews. He said for every three people who leave the construction industry, only one enters. “It’s the same thing in every part of the state — people have work to do; they just don’t have the workers,” Smith said.

Businesses Flourish Over Summer Despite Cool Weather

The cooler weather this summer certainly didn’t chill tourism activity: Businesses had some of their busiest stretches ever, occupancy rates at local hotels were up, and the airport increased already record-breaking passenger numbers by 25 percent.

“I’m pretty sure (a couple weeks ago) was close to the busiest week we’ve ever had,” said Andy Maetzold, chef at the Buffalo Café in Whitefish, in August. “It’s been a busy summer, but (two weeks ago) specifically was really for us weather dependent.”

Maetzold said the summer rush wasn’t overwhelming in the sense that they couldn’t handle the crowds or the crush, but rather that the stream of people flowing into the restaurant had been ever-steady since April.

“It didn’t feel any busier than it usually is; it’s just that there’s no break in it. I’d look up at 2 p.m. when we close and we’d have to turn people away at the door,” he said. “Typically in August it’s hot and sunny; this happened to be a random cold and rainy three days that were already going to be busy no matter what.”

Glacier Rail Park Fills Up

In December, Northern Plastics Inc. announced it was moving into the last space of available real estate in Glacier Rail Park, the 40-acre, rail-served industrial area off Whitefish Stage Road in Evergreen.

The Flathead County Economic Development Authority completed construction of the park in 2018, and it became the new home for two Kalispell businesses long-reliant on rail service: Northwest Drywall and CHS Kalispell. Earlier this fall, CHS completed its move into the rail park and now trainloads of grain are loaded there.

With the construction of the rail park and removal of the rails through downtown, Kalispell will start building a long-awaited trail connecting Evergreen and Woodland Park with Meridian Road. City officials have said the trail could be “transformative” for the downtown area, kicking off a number of new developments in a long-underutilized section of town.

Trade War Impacts Montana Farmers

For the last year, the U.S. and China have been engaging in a trade war, with the two countries enacting rounds of tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of imports and China announcing in August it would halt all purchases of U.S. agricultural products.

Montana’s export markets depend on international markets, with Canada being the state’s largest trading partner at about 41 percent of all exports. Canada imported about $680 million in Montana exports in 2018, with South Korea following with $292 million, and China in third with $115 million.

Of the products Montana sells to China, corn and soybean producers were expected to feel more pressure, according to Montana Farmers Union President Alan Merrill. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its supply and demand report Aug. 12, indicating a decrease in acreage for corn but increase production and yield. This came after indications that corn production would be down, given weather challenges in the Midwest this year.

In December, President Trump and China reached an initial trade deal, which would increase Chinese purchases of American agricultural products and reduce tariffs, if signed.

Sports Gambling is Legalized

Gov. Steve Bullock signed House Bill 725 into law on May 3, creating legal and regulated sports gambling in Montana and making it one of the first states to authorize the practice since a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2018.

The lottery commission approved the draft rules, but it’s unclear when gamblers will be able to place sports bets. However, implementation is inching closer.

The newly passed sports gambling law puts the responsibility for managing the program in the hands of the state-run lottery, and Bullock vetoed a separate bill that would have allowed sports gambling to be privatized. Because the implementation of sports gambling falls to a public agency, the drafting of rules and regulations must comply with the same legal process as any government outfit, with a public comment period of between 30 days and six months mandated upon release of draft rules and regulations.

Flathead Valley Addresses Housing

Cities in the Flathead Valley have been working to provide affordable housing, and Columbia Falls unveiled one of its efforts with 72 pet-friendly units at the Highline Apartments in September.

“One of the big things that drives market prices is the lack of available apartments,” City Manager Susan Nicosia said. “So you could have an older, less maintained (apartment) and all of a sudden rent is $1,000 a month because there’s 40 people standing in line.”

Since the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Highline Apartments’ first phase in September, the 72 units have all been filled and there’s already a waiting list for the next two complexes, which are scheduled for completion next summer. Once the entire development is finished, there will be six complexes total with 216 units.

Developers in Whitefish unveiled a 58-unit single-family affordable housing development in November and finished the first six homes.

Kalispell has hundreds of multi-family units at various stages of progress. Developers broke ground on a 324-unit apartment complex and officials approved a conditional-use permit for 120 new apartments along Two Mile Drive.

Glacier On Track For Second-Busiest Year in Park History

For the second time in its 110-year history, more than 3 million people have visited Glacier National Park in a single year.

The National Park Service released figures in early December showing that 3,034,702 people had visited Glacier Park through November, a 3 percent increase over last year but just short of 2017’s record-breaking 3.3 million people.

According to the park service, 20,008 people visited Glacier in November, a 3.1 percent drop from November 2018.

Earlier this year, visitation in Glacier Park had been relatively flat, reflecting a nationwide trend. But the numbers began to tick up during the summer. Visitation in August and September helped buck that trend because, for the first time in three years, the park did not have a major fire to contend with, giving a late-summer and early-fall boost to local businesses.

Senior Housing Rises

It’s no secret the Flathead is in the midst of a building boom, with a focus on affordable housing in many areas. But the valley is also getting older, with nearly one-fifth of the population at least 65 years old, and the growing aging population is playing a factor in what gets built and where.

For example, a new housing development in Evergreen called The Woodlands will use age as the main determining factor on who gets to live there, with a requirement that condominium owners must be at least 55 years old to purchase one of the 144 properties.

“It is a huge trend,” said Lance Fahrney with The Woodlands. “Any other major market has something like this where it’s not assisted living but it’s an age-restricted community.”

By 2009, the valley’s population was close to 90,000 people, and 14.2 percent were aged 65 and older. By 2015, the percentage jumped again to 15.9 percent, and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services estimates that by 2025, 21 percent of Flathead County’s population will be 65 and older.

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