Economic development more involved than most think

News-Argus Managing Editor
Friday, May 3, 2019
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Snowy Mountain Development Corporation staff, including (from left) Community Coordinator Carly Wheatley, Regional Director Sara Hudson and Executive Director Kathie Bailey review development plans. Bob Giese, business development director, and Diane Pennell, community coordinator (not shown) complete the SMDC team.

Photo by Deb Hill

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Getting to the goal of new businesses requires economic building blocks to be in place first, as shown in this graphic.

Photo courtesy of Snowy Mountain Development Corp.



Next week is Economic Development Week, a designation created in 2016 by the International Economic Development Council to highlight the important work done by economic developers around the world. 

“We want to recognize the unique role that economic development has in creating vibrant communities with strong economies,” the IEDC said.

Locally, much of the economic development work is undertaken by Snowy Mountain Development Corporation, formed in 2001 to ensure local communities can take advantage of opportunities available to larger communities. 

Former County Commissioner Kathie Bailey has led SMDC since the beginning. Bailey said she has seen a lot of positive change in that time, not just in Lewistown, but across Fergus County and the other counties SMDC serves.

“It’s kind of like a snowball,” Bailey said, referring to changing rural economies. “If there’s no one packing that first small snowball and pushing it along, nothing moves.”

That’s where economic development organizations come in, Bailey said, providing education and training opportunities for business owners, as well as finding new funding opportunities and working on strategic planning.

“SMDC is a tremendous resource for the region,” Bailey said. “We work with six counties and 14 communities. The projects we assist with are not our projects; we go where the community needs us. A lot of times people have good ideas but they don’t have financing. Or a business is trying to grow and needs help with workforce development. Or someone wants to develop a property, but there are environmental concerns. We help with these situations and more.”

Bailey does all this with the help of a small staff. Five people, Bailey included, work in what adds up to only 3.5 full-time positions. Funding comes from federal and state departments of commerce as well as local governments, and fees charged for services.


Not a quick process 

Improving rural economies doesn’t happen overnight. SMDC Community Coordinator Carly Wheatley said one of the most difficult aspects of the job is how long it sometimes takes to see the results of their work.

“Sometimes our role is educating community members on how to get to their goal,” she said. “They want new businesses, but there are many steps before a business decides to open or relocate. Is the infrastructure in place? Is a workforce available? Are supply chains there? Lots of things must be in place before new businesses open.”

How a community sees itself helps – or hinders – the process.

“People need to appreciate their community and its assets,” Bailey said. “It starts with community attitude. Everything you do is either marketing your community or not marketing your community. What you say when visitors come, what you tell people about your town. It’s all about selling your community.”

Sometimes, Bailey said, old ideas die hard.

“For example, people think the population in Lewistown is aging, but the median age has actually decreased,” she said. “Or people say downtown is dying. I remember about 10 years ago driving down Main Street [in Lewistown] and there were no cars at all. Now look. And it’s not just Lewistown. Harlow, Roundup, Winnett – things are moving across the region.”


Follow the money

Wheatley said she feels one of the most important roles SMDC plays is assisting businesses in securing funding, often through state or federal programs. 

“I think a lot of businesses would have a hard time navigating the programs that are available, if SMDC wasn’t here,” Wheatley said. “Things like brownfields funding [funds available for environmental cleanups] – I don’t think the average business person could do it, or has time.”

Recently SMDC became certified as a community development financial institution.

“We’re not a bank,” Bailey said, “but this opens the door for additional loan products. We work in counties that have no banks. This funding helps with gap financing so projects can happen.”

“It complements what banks do,” Wheatley said.

Tracking progress for the communities they assist means analyzing census data and other resources, and reworking economic development strategies about every five years.

“When we do that, we can really see the difference,” Bailey said. “An example is Lewistown’s manufacturing sector. Twenty years ago there wasn’t much of one; now it is equal to or even about to surpass the ag sector. The in-depth analyses we do for the region every five years help us see what’s happening.

“There’s a great big snowball moving in Lewistown,” she added.



Lewistown currently has a population of about 6,000 people. What do you think is the ideal population level for Lewistown?