Neither boom nor bust: Lewistown economy is up short-term, stagnant long-term

Special to the News-Argus


Lewistown's economy shows some short-term improvement but overall for the long-term it remains fairly stagnant.  As such it can be only partially to blame for store-front closings on Main Street.

This assessment of Lewistown's economic health can be gleaned from figures supplied by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research. 

Kyle Morrill, senior economist and director of forecasting at the Business Bureau, said Fergus County “has been static in the long-term while seeing some short-term growth.”

All of Central Montana is  in the same boat, Morrill said, with some areas growing and others still in recession.

“Fergus County was slower to rebound (than the state as a whole) from the recession,” Morrill said.  He added that by “recession,” he is speaking of the 2008-2009 national recession when the housing market collapsed.

However, Judith Basin County has rebounded faster than Fergus while Wheatland, Golden Valley and Petroleum counties – all in Central Montana – have been as slow as Fergus. Those other three counties also have experienced some job losses lately.

The word “stagnant” also was used by Lonnie Mannin, owner of the B & B Motel on Main Street. He believes that development of a park in the old Westfeeds complex will help his business.  He also thinks the various groups, such as the Arts and Entertainment District, Tax Increment Financing District, and Lewistown Downtown Association will help.

One bright area in Fergus County has been wage growth, Morrill said.  It has been at a  higher rate than statewide.  Per capita income in Fergus County increased from $22,295 in 2010 to $25,896 in 2014.  Per capita income has increased every year since 2010, he said.

Another positive influence on the downtown economy is tourism.  According to Mannin, chairman of the local Tourism Business Improvement District, tourism is improving.  He bases that on the number of people staying during the summer in his B & B motel.

“A new trend in Montana tourism is helping us in Lewistown,” said Mannin.  “The trend is that visitors now want to get off the beaten track and take the backroads.  Lewistown benefits from that.”

Mannin said his TBID administers a fund promoting tourism that gets $1 per occupied room per night.  The money is spent on print advertising, Internet advertising, billboards and the like.

Population growth, always a determinant in economic well-being, has remained static.  Fergus County's population was 11,586 in 2010 compared to 11,427 in 2015.  Lewistown's population in 1990 was 6,051.  Latest figures from the U. S. Census Bureau show the city's population is 5,874. 

These figures fall within historical figures for Lewistown which had 6,120 in 1920 and 6,573 in 1950.

Morrill said he did not have figures on those who quit seeking work but the unemployment rate in Fergus County, at 3.4 percent in 2014, is an improvement over 4.9 percent in 2013.  Morrill noted that unemployment has been tapering off in recent years.

But while these figures show no boom or bust for Lewistown or Fergus County, farmers and ranchers may think differently about the current economic situation. 

Darren Crawford, Montana State University extension agent for Fergus and Petroleum counties, said agriculture, the driving force in Lewistown's economy, is hurting.

“If you look at the past five years prices for grain and beef were good,” Crawford said. “But if you look at (the most recent) one-year window, they are doing poorly.

“Beef prices have plummeted but are not disastrous yet,” said Crawford.  “Wheat prices are catastrophic.  In 2008, prices shot up and up but by last year, wheat prices were below the cost of production.” 

However, for this year, farmers and ranchers are in pretty good shape, he said.  He added they will have to live on equity this year and hope for a profit in the future. He described living on equity as repairing old farm machinery, cutting costs where possible and living on savings.

These savings came from the historically high prices and profits between 2007 and 2015, according to an Internet report published by a Minnesota newspaper.  The story said farmers in Minnesota are having to draw on savings to pay their bills.  Some have been driven into bankruptcy, the story says.

Crawford said those working with downtown store owners should look at the empty store fronts as an opportunity, not just a problem. 

“Empty store fronts are an opportunity,” said Crawford.  “It means we now have a place for businesses to go.  Here's a hole and there's an opportunity there.”

But even if businesses locate in those “holes” on Main Street, can they stay?  Is it possible for a small business to be successful in downtown Lewistown?

Mannin said much depends how well business owners invest in their buildings. He added “the biggest thing is downtown building owners working with new potential building owners or renters.”

Duane Ferdinand, Lewistown city planner, said it depends on what kind of stores locate in the downtown.  Store-owners have to be aware, he said, that re-sale has changed dramatically in the past few years. People want to buy different things downtown than they did a few years ago.

He noted that many people are now ordering on line and having items delivered right to their doorstep.  This means fewer people are walking the streets of Lewistown to do their shopping, Ferdinand said.

The city planner, who also serves as the city's historic preservation officer, said city officials must learn to help businesses which want to locate downtown.  And then the community must make an effort to see that people patronize those stores.

Ferdinand believes that making the downtown more attractive will help draw business to Main Street.  He said that upper stories need to be developed and so-called parklets can be placed along both sides of Main Street to allow people to sit, visit or eat. 

“Our zoning is somewhat outdated.  Rather than just separation of usage, the codes should be more concerned with how things look,” Ferdinand said.  By separation of usage, he means the codes that require businesses to be apart from living quarters in the same building.

The city planner said there is 254,569 square feet of building space on street level on Main Street. Of that, 56,810 square feet is vacant.  That's 22 percent of the available space.

“That space could support a lot of retail businesses,” said Ferdinand.

He noted calls for reduced rents for storefronts on Main Street.  Ferdinand has some interest in that since he owns two business buildings on Main Street. 

“Part of it has to do with the potential renter.  They need to negotiate a startup rent that allows them to be successful.  The renter must keep in mind the owner has taxes, often utilities, sometimes a mortgage and insurance.  These costs go on whether the space is rented or not,”

Ferdinand said.

“Of course you would think those costs would be an incentive for the building owner to get the space rented as quickly as possible,” he said.

Ferdinand explained that he doesn't think it's the economy that is affecting downtown storefronts. He believes it is changing shopping habits. But he believes small business owners can meet those changing needs.

“It is going to take a lot of entrepreneurial spirit,” he said.







Where is your favorite place to go camping in Central Montana?