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We Hit One Million!

by Hannah Stiff | Feb 15, 2019 10:18:25 AM

The cost of growth in a once-sleepy university
ski town

Growth was the word
at the University of Montana’s 44th Annual Economic Outlook Seminar
in Bozeman this week. The University’s Bureau of Business & Economic
Research hit the road with its top economists to deliver the economic outlook
to 10 Montana cities this month. The summit highlighted the economic trends for
various regions across the state of Montana.

While Montana
remains a state with wide open spaces & beautiful vistas, most of the
population (that finally hit 1 million at last count), is concentrated in urban
areas. UM Economic Researcher Paul Polzin said that four of the six major
Montana communities now have populations topping 100,000, with Bozeman,
Missoula and the Flathead Valley especially booming.

As the fastest
growing micropolitan city in the nation, Bozeman is facing unique challenges
that will impact its citizens, schools, government and businesses. Housing is
an especially tricky subject – one that economists attempted to distill into
palatable bites for the everyday Joe & Jane at the summit. Bozeman’s median
home price is more than $425,000, up $125,000 over 2015 numbers. Those figures
are far higher than the rest of the state, with the median house being listed
at $321,900.

With growth come congestion
and affordability issues. A drive along 19th Ave. during rush hour
in Bozeman is enough to make Polzin’s point. What once was open farmland with a
lone fancy new Home Depot has now been filled in with chain restaurants, fast
fashion box stores, coffeeshops, grocery stores and strip malls.

Parents in
boomtowns feel the growth with crowded elementary schools, teachers stretched
thin, snarling lines to drop kiddos off, and a shortage of bus drivers on many

Voters feel the
pinch when taxes come due on a bond that was approved for a new school, or
property taxes are hiked to sky high levels, making mortgages an unattainable
dream for even more Bozeman residents.   

But as economists
noted, other parts of the state wish they had the same problems.

The surge in
construction - particularly in Flathead, Gallatin and Missoula counties -
accounted for 75 percent of statewide construction earnings in 2017, UM Bureau
of Business and Economic Research director Patrick Barkey said.

A thriving tech
sector (concentrating on manufacturing and professional services) and popular
land-grant university are certainly playing a part in Bozeman’s growth. Barkey
and his colleagues also noted the expanding healthcare sector in counties like
Yellowstone and Flathead was the result of the state’s expansion of Montana
Medicaid to low-income families.

Though Gallatin
County is strong across the board, other communities are still recovering from
poor nonfarm earnings in 2016 and a steep decline in mining earnings, a major
industry in Montana. Oil revenues fell sharply in 2016, but rebounded in 2017,
mainly from $101 million earnings in Billings, according to economists. Ag
remains a major, profitable industry in rural areas across the state.

As new neighbors
continue to discover the Treasure State, it is important to remember that the
cost of growth impacts nearly every sector. We’re looking to a future where
growth can be leveraged to help Montana businesses to stand out as trustworthy
and ethical. From the laborers laying the foundations of new homes in quickly
growing counties, to the mom and pop restaurants feeding the community, to the
clever entrepreneur trying to make a new idea thrive, to the family cattle
operation employing multiple generations at once, Montana is being built upon
the backs of our local business owner and employees. It’s important we remember
to support smart growth by supporting smart businesses.

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