Officials, industry leaders mull a new path for Bozeman’s economy

By the end of September, Bozeman will have an entirely new projection for how the city’s economy will grow and change over the coming years.

The city, led by Economic Development Director Brit Fontenot, is currently in the process of updating its economic development plan for the first time since 2009.

Most of the legwork for the project will be performed by Portland, Oregon-based Leland Consulting Group, which, over the next several months, will aggregate information through interviews with government officials and industry leaders, before churning out a revised plan.

Along with “supporting business sectors that create and sustain mid-to high-paying jobs,” Fontenot and the Economic Development Council have identified three main goals for the new plan: nurturing existing businesses while attracting new ones, maintaining infrastructure, and facilitating workforce education efforts.

Tending the local garden

A large portion of the responsibility for fostering local business growth falls on the shoulders of economic development agencies like Prospera Business Network and the Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District, which act as liaisons between businesses and state grant programs.

In 2015, Prospera leveraged more than $4.75 million in grants, loans and matching funds to companies in Park and Gallatin counties, creating at least 50 jobs in the process. And demand for the nonprofit’s services has only increased, said Executive Director Paul Reichert.

“Prospera sees steady demand for our services for people to start and grow their businesses, and the significant majority are people that already live and work here,” Reichert said.

The organization has a month-long waiting list for its counseling services, the director added.

“There will be natural limits, but I don’t see it slowing down that much.”

Despite the potentially enticing prospect of bringing a multinational corporation to the Gallatin Valley, ensuring the health and growth of local ventures should take priority over the recruitment of non-local companies, officials agreed.

“Our number one thing in economic development is retention and expansion of businesses here,” said Daryl Schliem, president of the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our first and foremost goal is to take care of the businesses we have here and cater to their needs.”

“We’ve always made a priority of economic gardening, that’s at the root of our philosophy,” added Fontenot. “Support the businesses that have supported your community, then secondarily go after businesses that are interested in relocating, but only if they will be a benefit to your community.”

Prioritizing local entrepreneurs has the added effect of keeping growth sustainable, said Jim Ness, president of Big Sky Western Bank and a citizen representative involved in the economic development plan update.

“We have to look at our existing businesses, because it’s not all about bringing in more,” he said.

“What we need to do is garden locally rather than chase big dreams elsewhere,” added Mayor Carson Taylor. “There may be some really big things that happen in the city that come from the outside, but we could spend years and a lot of money chasing rainbows.”

In addition to coordinating with development groups, one of the goals of the new economic plan will be to support Startup Bozeman, a local business incubator that connects budding companies with financial and educational resources.

“You want to make sure you’re collaborating with the right groups That collaboration is important so that we’re all working together and everyone is communicating their needs,” said Ness. “Just like anything else, you have to have the right people and objectives to move forward with it.”

Training the workforce

The second part of the economic development equation, after ensuring the health of local businesses, involves feeding companies a stream of skilled workers.

Much of the onus for developing this workforce falls on Montana State University and Gallatin College, both of which will be included in the discussions surrounding the new economic plan.

Recently, the city partnered with Gallatin College as well as several leaders in the local photonics industry to create a two-year associate’s degree in photonics and laser technology.

“The companies asked for a technician program to educate workers so they could be effective technicians in the labs around Bozeman, given there are over 30 laser optics programs here locally,” said Gallatin College Dean Robert Hietala.

The program, which begins its inaugural session next month, is just one example of local government, the private sector and educational institutions working together toward economic improvement, Hietala said.

“The City Commission and leadership are working closely with industry identifying those needs and supporting the workforce programs,” he said. “They’ve shown a longstanding commitment to workforce development.”

The college’s new culinary arts degree is another example of higher education attempting to align with local industry demands, Hietala said.

In 2010, the college awarded 22 degrees and workforce certificates. By 2015, that number had swelled to 125.

“We’ve been in an underserved area for a long time,” he said.

With business demand and public backing, the success of the college’s 12 programs, including its popular CNC machine technology degree, can be replicated across business sectors from tech to outdoors, localizing the workforce and giving residents a path to mid- to high-wage jobs, Hietala added.

“You put out qualified, educated folks who are hardworking and understand the workforce needs and the industry will scoop them up,” he said.

“We don’t have to sell our souls to get businesses to come here”

Local government can only control so much in terms of economic development, officials said, which is part of the reason the city recruited several outside voices to offer input on the new plan.

But one of the ways it can affect economic growth, and the final of the main goals for the plan, is through the continued maintenance and upgrade of infrastructure — from roads and sewers to supporting projects like the Bozeman fiber network.

“A lot of it revolves around the infrastructure. When I think about existing or new businesses — creating a good environment for those businesses to succeed — it’s the basic stuff like streets and sidewalks,” Ness said.

One of the keys to moving forward successfully will be dovetailing economic development with the city’s Integrated Water Resources and transportation plans, which will end up as part of its all-encompassing Strategic Plan, Taylor added.

“Doing the things that the city can do: good infrastructure, tax structure — the city’s role is to support in whatever way we can” he said.

Working in tandem with organizations like the Human Resource Development Council to provide affordable housing, keeping property taxes manageable and raising the minimum wage — which Taylor said he is “investigating” — are among the ways the city can intervene to strengthen the area economy, the mayor said.

The fiber project, set for completion by the end of the summer, is a also prime example of a successful infrastructure project, supported by the city in partnership with a private group, that will both assist already established businesses as well as make Bozeman more attractive for companies looking to relocate.

“Montana is not an incentive rich state; we’re limited in our tools in offering things of that nature, so we have to sell other things like workforce or infrastructure,” said Fontenot. “There are other things to sell; we don’t have to sell our souls to get businesses to come here.”

A large portion of the money for infrastructure improvements will come from the city’s five tax increment financing (TIF) districts, which freeze property tax values in order to pool money earmarked specifically for redevelopment.

The city has also floated the idea of a foreign trade zone, an area that would assist businesses by reducing import and export taxes, similar to the zone that already exists in Silver Bow County.

Perhaps the city’s largest role, however, will be to act as facilitator. Fontenot has recruited 20 individuals representing around a dozen public and private organizations to take part in the plan overhaul. And to prevent projections from getting stale, the new plan will be designed for an update every three years.

“We’re leveraging a lot of different efforts that fit in with the other pieces of the puzzle,” Fontenot said. “There is some project, stakeholder and industry overlap, and by doing it this way, we’re able to get a lot done in a little time for a little money.”

But ensuring the involved organizations follow through on the plan will be another struggle entirely.

“Getting it written is the easy part; implementing is the hard part,” Fontenot said.

However, if the city’s history with similar projects like the Integrated Water Resources Plan is anything to go by, the new economic development plan won’t sit on a shelf collecting dust, Taylor said.

“We do a good job of (planning) in Bozeman,” he said. “Life throws curves at you and things change, but it’s all about how we look toward the future and guide the present.”

From the Bozeman Chronicle