BROWNING — Carol Murray has seen the challenges the small town of Browning has faced over the past couple of years.
The financial hardships, legal disputes and disincorporation of the town of 1,000 has been hard on the community in the heart of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
As the interim president of Blackfeet Community College, Murray hopes that a new, $7.5 million Health Science and Education building now under construction will eventually help alleviate another long-standing challenge of meeting the health care needs of the community.
“The need for health professionals in our community is pretty extreme,” Murray said. “We have a huge Indian Health Service hospital here and we have a very difficult time attracting and sustaining long-term medical nurses and doctors.”
It took a creative approach to develop the funding package needed to build the 9,000-square-foot building that will house education, nursing and health training programs on the two-year community college’s 800-acre campus.
The financing package came together through a partnership with First Interstate Bank and Montana & Idaho CDC, which brought an innovative financing tool called New Markets Tax Credits that helps incentivize economic development projects in low-income communities around the country. Montana & Idaho CDC works with investors to turn tax credits into cash, and then uses that cash to fund development projects.
For the first time in its history, the college also took advantage of the state’s Community Development Block Grant program.
College officials identified the need for updated classrooms to allow for expansion of the school’s nursing program, which began as a collaboration with another northwest Montana community college.
“When we first started our nursing program here, we were in a partnership with Flathead Community College and so we had to make do with what we had and what they could provide,” Murray said. “After we finished the Math Science Building, it became obvious that we still needed a more specialized building to meet the training needs for nursing students. So that was kind of the start of the design of it.”
At that time, Murray said finding the financial resources to make that happen was the main challenge the college faced in moving forward with the project. That effort was led by then facility’s director, Terry Tatsey, who currently serves as the vice chairman of the Blackfeet Tribe.
“He had to go out and look for new ways to fund facilities here,” Murray said. “He looked at the New Markets Tax Credits. He worked with Glacier County and the state of Montana on the Community Development Block Grant funding and other areas of funding we could use.
“That was the start in designing the building and finding the funding that could all match up to make it happen,” Murray said. “We had to be very creative.”
Without those two new large sources of funding, she said it wouldn’t have been possible for the college to move forward with the new building that someday could house a four-year nursing program.
“It can be challenging to attract investment in rural communities, but the New Markets Tax Credit Program has enabled us to overcome that hurdle and leverage federal dollars to make this project a reality,” Murray said. “This project will allow students in our community to get a great education and gain job skills, without having to leave Browning.”
The college currently offers a two-year degree in nursing.
“With the more specialized classrooms and laboratory-type classrooms, it allows us to consider the idea of a bachelor of science in nursing,” Murray said. “Up to the point, I don’t think we could have made any firm plans for that.”
Other opportunities could come as result of the new facility. Last week, officials for the University of Montana’s sports medicine program were in Browning to meet with students and faculty to talk about the potential of students taking graduate courses.
“I think when we have a nicer facility, that type of collaboration with other schools may open doors that that we aren’t even projecting right now,” Murray said.
Construction has started on the new building.
“We have already broken ground because of the creative financing we had to do,” she said. “We had resources already that allowed us to get started. The financial package was completed and finalized last Wednesday. We couldn’t make any announcements until we had the final dollar amount available to finish the facility.”
With the building’s frame going up now, Murray said the next challenge will be to beat winter to the punch.
“That’s not easy, especially here in Browning where it blows a lot,” she said. “Last night I think there were gusts over 80 miles per hour.''
The plan is to have the building open to students by January 2019, although Murray said it’s possible that it would ready to go next fall.
“This is a truly exciting moment for BCC and for Browning,” Murray said. “The new Health Science Education Building will be instrumental in creating jobs, and will help attract the faculty we need to grow our programs and serve the more than 500 students who pass through our campus each year.”
While Blackfeet Community College was able to take advantage of the New Markets Tax Credits program, it’s not certain that other rural communities will continue to have the same opportunity.
The U.S. House version of the tax bill would repeal the NMTC Program at the end of 2017. The Senate version calls for its continuation.
Since 2008, Montana & Idaho CDC has received $431 million in New Markets Tax Credit allocations, which have helped finance 29 projects across Montana and Idaho and created or retained nearly 3,000 jobs.
“The impact of the NMTC Program on rural communities like Browning cannot be overstated,” said Dave Glaser, president of Montana & Idaho CDC. “This program brings financial resources to projects that would otherwise not be possible, and the impacts — job creation, economic growth and revitalization — will be felt for decades to come. We’re fighting to ensure the continuation of the NMTC Program so we have resources to support the next great project.”
U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, both of whom serve on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, have been supportive of the NMTC Program for years and have co-sponsored legislation multiple times to make the tax credits permanent.
“These resources will help expand Blackfeet Community College, ensure that students attain a quality education and develop a well-trained workforce,” Tester said. “Projects like this underscore the importance of the New Markets Tax Credits, and I will continue to fight to make sure Browning and other Montana communities continue to have access to these critical funds.”
“Expanding BCC is an investment in Browning’s future,” Daines said. “By giving students in rural areas like Browning access to improved facilities, they will be better equipped to obtain good-paying jobs that will strengthen Browning’s economy and improve the lives of the Montanans who call it home. I am excited to support this project.”