CHOTEAU – Gov. Steve Bullock Tuesday launched what he called the second phase of his Main Street Montana project, to focus its economic-growth assistance on the state’s sometimes struggling rural towns.
Bullock, speaking to people gathered at the Choteau-Teton Public Library in Choteau, rattled off a list of encouraging economic-growth numbers for the state – but said that growth often is concentrated in cities.
“Ultimately we have an obligation and an opportunity to ensure that rural communities, and Indian country, (aren’t) left behind, as we see growth,” he said. “And that’s a chunk of why we’re here today.”
Through Main Street Montana, the administration plans to partner initially with a half-dozen specific communities, to identify what they need to spur economic growth and attract people and businesses.
“We’re not here to tell our rural communities what to do,” said Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who also traveled to Choteau Tuesday. “We are here to assist. Our No. 1 goal is to make sure these communities are in charge of their own future.”
Main Street Montana, launched by the Bullock administration in 2013, engaged business leaders across the state and produced a “business plan” for the state the next year.
It identified five “pillars” that the state should pursue, such as better workforce training, and 13 “key industry networks” of business leaders to guide how those goals could be accomplished.
Bullock said Tuesday that almost 80 percent of the project’s recommendations have been implemented or are in progress, and suggested they’ve played a role in making the state an economic leader in the country.
He pointed to data released last week indicating Montana had the nation’s fastest growth in median income from 2016 to 2017, and noted that unemployment in Montana is the lowest its been in a decade, at 3.6 percent.
Choteau Mayor Dan Lannen said his town on the Rocky Mountain Front was a “100 percent agricultural community” 30 years ago, but has been working to diversify its economy as ag employs fewer and fewer people.
“We’re still farming and raising the same amount of cattle we did 30 years ago, but we’ve got 25 percent of the people doing it, from the bigger machinery to technology,” he said. “We don’t have the numbers on the farm any more.”
Any help the state can provide is welcome, Lannen said.
“We may need some more help on infrastructure,” he said. “We’re a 100-year-old town; we’ve got to have infrastructure. We spent a lot of money on our sewer treatment; water is the next one we’re working on.”
Cooney said rural areas face plenty of challenges, but that he’s confident the state, working with those communities, can design a path to help them thrive and prosper.
“I remain optimistic that we cannot only keep our rural communities on the map, but we can make them places where Montanans want to live, start a business and raise a family in our state,” he said.