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KALISPELL - "While much of rural America struggles with economic decline, the economy in Montana's Flathead Valley is growing, vibrant, and diversifying."

So begins the introduction to a trio of studies completed in recent months that shatter widespread - and often apocryphal - beliefs about who lives in western Montana and why.

Contrary to popular belief, timber is no longer king. People don't come for jobs - rather, jobs come for people. Wages are up, poverty and unemployment are down.

And the economic good news can be traced back to what is, for many, a surprising source: vast undeveloped swaths of public land.

Those and other conclusions were released Tuesday in "Gateway to Glacier: The Emerging Economy of Flathead County."

The report, produced by the National Parks Conservation Association, synthesizes three technical studies conducted by researchers at the University of Montana. Tuesday, Larry Swanson announced the core findings at the monthly meeting of the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce.

Swanson heads the Regional Economy Program at the Missoula-based O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

"The key assets increasingly in this area are the very attractive amenities," Swanson said. That is to say, the clean waters, abundant wildlife, scenic vistas and wild open recreation lands. The small-town feel, the working farms and forests, the well-educated work force.

But at the core of those amenities, he said, is Glacier National Park.

In the 1980s, the park and other wild and scenic spots brought tourists, and the Flathead served them burgers. In the 1990s, people came to stay, and the Flathead built them homes. Today, the children of those people who came to stay are wanting work, and the Flathead is building them jobs.

"In my work, I deal with entrepreneurial high-tech firms located throughout the country," said Kalispell software developer Joel Bonda. "I've asked them what factors might attract them to expand or relocate in Flathead Valley. First, they say that they would move to Montana for its environment: open spaces, big sky, pure water, fresh air. Glacier National Park is a huge part of the attractiveness of this place."

The trick is to keep the cycle alive - to keep the tourists and new residents and entrepreneurs coming - and that means recognizing what brought them in the first place. Which takes us right back to those amenities, which, some say, are all too rapidly being subdivided into the past tense.

In her foreword to the NPCA report, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce Chair Susan Burch wrote that "Now it is time for community, conservation and business interests to come to the table again to constructively contribute to the future of our beloved Flathead Valley Š Let's not squander our resources. Our environment, our economy and our community are treasures we can't afford to lose."

In fact, the technical studies within indicate the environment, economy and community might all be one and the same thing.

To ferret out those connections, Swanson looked beyond the local economic data to find the underlying "broader patterns of economic change in the Rocky Mountain West."

What he found were some patterns that, while not exactly surprising, do challenge the generally accepted notion of Montana's economy.

For instance, Swanson took a look at similar rural counties in the West, "peer" counties with relatively small populations but with regional retail hubs such as Kalispell. Then he sifted out counties that also served as gateways to national parks, such as Flathead County does.

He learned the places with parks - Flathead County included - have faster growth, more in-migration, better employment, higher wages and more personal income. Between 1987 and 1997, park "gateway counties" saw a 40 percent growth in total personal income, while income in non-park peer counties grew at less than two-thirds that rate.

Flathead County, in fact, is ahead of its peers when it comes to wages and employment. Simply put, people want to live and work near parks, and so are building new economies to do so.

Back a century ago, when locals were debating the proposed creation of Glacier Park, no one would have guessed its importance as an economic driving force. Mostly, they were concerned about losing logging and mining opportunities.

"There may be some local people who favor the park plan," wrote the Kalispell Daily Inter Lake in 1907, "but we know of only two."

It did not mention which two.

But by 2002, that same newspaper was calling the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park "our region's biggest economic engine."

Businesses have long understood the connection between the wild park at the top of the world and the black ink across the bottom line - nearly 200 have borrowed the park's name in their business name. Hundreds more have borrowed the name of the grizzly bear.

The changes that shifted a community from resisting the park to embracing its economic potential were not just local; they were national. They were tied to highway systems and public works projects and a new cultural view of the environment.

And they are ongoing, with more people moving into areas near national parks all the time.

The population is getting older, relying more and more heavily on investment income and Social Security checks. Technology makes it possible to work from anywhere. Big manufacturing centers have shed jobs overseas, replaced by more mobile and more flexible small businesses. People no longer move to the jobs - instead, the jobs chase the people, who in Swanson's words have become "footloose."

By the 1980s, hundreds of thousand of people, no longer flocking to manufacturing cities, flocked to the big wild open, "and net migration into the Flathead simply skyrocketed," Swanson said. The vast spread of public land, he concluded, "is what really defines us."

At first, the shift manifested itself in relatively low-paying service jobs associated with a young tourism industry. But by the 1990s, he said, a whole new breed of service job was leading the pack - tourism was being nudged out by health care, business services, and management services.

"This isn't washing other people's laundry," Swanson said. "This is accountants and doctors and nurses and engineers and architects."

"Conservation affects the attractiveness of the area and the kinds of people we recruit to the Flathead Valley," said Velinda Stevens, CEO at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. "We have been able to attract and retain an outstanding medical staff because this is such a nice place to live."

Her employees don't do other people's laundry. They read other people's CAT scans.The new service sector workers are bankers and realtors and computer programmers and builders. Especially builders.

As 2003 began, the Kalispell Chamber estimated more than $1 billion was being invested in major construction throughout the valley.

On the slow-growth side of the equation are pieces of the economy on the downslide, not just here but nationwide. They include farming and railroading and logging and mining - industries that operate in amid global competition and so must find ways to increase productivity and decrease costs.

Montana mines more coal than ever, Swanson said, but does so with far fewer people. While those industries remain important pieces of the pie, they are no longer the whole pie, and in fact are not keeping up with the growth in other sectors of the economy.

"The economy is engaged in tremendous change," Swanson said, "and that is reshaping the economic activity that goes on in places like the Flathead."

Glacier Park and public lands were the magnet, he said. They attracted more people, who attracted more jobs, who attracted more businesses, who attracted more income.

"Unlike Las Vegas, people don't move here primarily for the job opportunities," said Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber. "We see people attracted to this area for its outstanding natural amenities, good schools and small-town environment. It's a beautiful place to live."

The growth fueled by that in-migration, Swanson said, can, if managed well, provide a sort of "bridge" between the old economy and the new. By itself, the in-migration and the wealth it brings will not be enough to sustain a long-term economy, but it could cover the gaps during the short-term until the new economy fully matures. (Already it is maturing, he said, as visitors become residents and wages climb. Per capita income is on the rise, poverty is on the decline, and unemployment is at a 30-year low.)

But crossing the bridge is no easy feat.

"That takes some strategy, and that takes some intelligence," he warned.

Community leaders must recognize the goose that's laying their golden eggs, identify the threats to the goose, and plan ways to sustain the growth without paving over the very amenities driving that growth.

"I love this valley," said Flathead business owner Tom Krustangel. "I love the people in it. I'd hate for us to look like Anytown, USA, with garbled, jumbled zoning. There is a character to this area that I hope we're smart enough to preserve."

Defining that character and determining the best way to preserving it is no easy task, however.

In the process, Swanson said, people can anticipate "a very difficult period. It's very divisive. It can create polarity," as the old economy gives way to the new.

But in the end, change will happen, he advised, with you or without you, "so be smart about it."

Reporter Michael Jamison can be reached at 1-800-366-7816 or at mjamison@missoulian.com

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