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When state economist Barb Wagner asked a room of almost 200 people how they felt about the strength of Montana’s economy, more than two-thirds agreed that “it’s not good, but it’s not bad.”

The ho-hum answer set the stage for a nearly three-hour roundtable discussion to gather ideas on how to improve that outlook and move the state’s economy forward.

The event, held Tuesday in Missoula, was the second information-gathering session held by the newly formed Main Street Montana Project, an initiative commissioned by Gov. Steve Bullock’s office to help write a new statewide economic plan.

Before attendees shared their thoughts, Wagner told them that while Montana’s economy has been “growing quite quickly” since it bottomed out in 2009, the state ranks as low as 41st for personal income and wage earnings.

“We want to figure out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong so we can bring up those numbers – so we can get those (economic growth and income numbers) where they need to be,” said Wagner, senior economist for Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

Statute dictates that Montana have a “strategic economic development plan.”

The Main Street project aims to gather ideas from across the state and to develop a plan with a “bottom-up, self-sustaining blueprint” that supports the “creation, recruitment and retention of Montana jobs.”

“We’re not trying to rewrite local plans, but rewrite guidelines” to help businesses thrive statewide, Washington Companies President and Chief Executive Officer Larry Simkins told attendees.

Simkins co-chairs the project with Bill Johnstone, president and CEO of D.A. Davidson and Co.

Information about the strengths, weaknesses and opportunities gathered at five regional meetings, along with information from a county-by-county survey and outreach to other states, will be used to create an initial report and eventually, a new statewide business plan.

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When it comes to creating opportunities, Flathead Lake Cheese owner Joe Arnold would like better access to tools that would help him and wife Wendi more easily introduce and transport their products to larger markets.

“I think what we’re facing is a centralized society sending us their stuff,” Arnold said.

But Arnold wants to focus on: “What can we make to send back to them?”

Attendees shared their thoughts during small group discussions that centered on answering questions about the opportunities with the best potential for economic development and limits on economic development in their areas. The small groups’ ideas later were shared with the larger gathering and collected by project staff.

Jan Tusick, program director at Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center in Ronan, noted that opportunity may lie in re-examining how agricultural business is done in Montana.

Focusing on diversifying the industry by focusing on more than just exports could create opportunities, she said.

“Agriculture has been a mainstay, but we need to look at different perspectives,” Tusick said.

Finding a way to help businesses produce their wares also is important, she said.

“I get asked all the time, ‘How do I build a commercial kitchen? How do I get the capital to do it?’ ” Tusick said. “One of the biggest needs is access to capital.”

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Adam Vauthier and Casey Ferguson run Vauthier-Ferguson, a marketing firm that has sought work outside the state as it’s grown.

“Our state can always do more to network,” Ferguson said. “There is a lot of leaving to make things happen first.”

Minkie Medora of the Montana Food Bank Network said more practical workforce training opportunities need to be offered across the state.

“There aren’t that many opportunities around the state. There are just a few select sites to get training offered by vocational colleges, Medora said.

Vauthier agreed.

“In Anaconda, we just had the smelter. That’s something we’ve been dealing with for years,” he said.

If the state offered more incentives for worker retraining it could help create a more qualified workforce to fill jobs in up-and-coming industries, Vauthier said.

The Main Street Montana Project also is holding information-gathering meetings in Great Falls, Miles City and Bozeman. A meeting was held in Billings on May 28.

An initial report should be ready in early 2014, Simkins said.

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Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at jenna.cederberg@missoulian.com.

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