Editorial: Economic development – it’s time to begin the discussion in earnest

Three weeks ago Katie Weaver from Headwaters Resource, Conservation and Development in Butte held an economic development brainstorming session in Virginia City.

Her goal was to get those in attendance to work through the economic priorities of Madison County, to provide her information for the five-year update of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the seven county area served by Headwaters RC&D.

In 2007, Headwaters RC&D staff met with people in Madison County and came up with a laundry list of economic development priorities, including affordable housing plan, enhanced 911 system, and library expansions in Sheridan, Ennis and Virginia City.

The meeting in early May was attended by about 18 people from around the county and economic ideas ranged from promoting tourism, to education, to finding local markets for local foods. The group included local county officials, town councilors and business leaders.

The ideas were basically coming from the essential question: “What does Madison County and its communities need in the way of economic development?”

Madison County is kind of unique in Montana. We don’t have a centralized population. Rather our citizens are spread relatively evenly around a relatively large county. Our residents live within the broader economic influence of two of the state’s larger cities: Butte and Bozeman.

Madison County is a growing county in terms of population, but we are one of the oldest counties in Montana with 21 percent of our population over the age of 65, according to the 2010 Census.

The Census tells us some other interesting things as well. Our per capita income increased through the first decade of the 21st Century, as did the percentage of our population with a college degree. To put it simply, people in Madison County overall are trending up in wages, education and population.

Those three things alone should make business owners and entrepreneurs look seriously at Madison County as a place to relocate or start up.

Additionally, because 3 Rivers Communications has installed fiber optic cable through the Madison Valley, a business in the Ennis area can have the same technology advantages as one is downtown Seattle.

All of this and the amenities that many of us live here for: four world-class trout rivers, exceptional hunting, small-town quaintness and a handful of the most majestic mountain ranges in the northern Rockies.

Yet in many ways the economy in Madison County is still figuring itself out. For years it’s been centered on agriculture and in many ways still is. However, there continues to be a significant tourism and service industry component and health care is becoming more important as our residents age.

The economic challenges facing us in the next five to ten years will certainly be significant and maybe the most important challenge focuses not on the question of can we grow, but rather on how we should grow. And that question needs to be one tackled by the county as a whole.

The comprehensive economic strategy Weaver is working on will only be worth doing if people from around the county engage in the process. We need to figure out together how our small communities can help each other and ourselves. We need to be able to discuss economic development from a countywide standpoint as well as from a local community level.

It would be valuable to look at what the businesses that are already here need to survive and thrive. How can the business community in the county work together more effectively in ways of utilizing common services, needs or training demands?

But we also need to look to the future as well. What business do we need here? How can we encourage them to come? What do we already have that we can better capitalize on? How can we continue to train our workforce to meet new demands?

For more information on the comprehensive economic strategy for Madison County, give Weaver a call at 533-6783.

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