Missoula session shows variety of ideas on what direction to take

If Missoula is any indication, Sen. Max Baucus will get an earful of suggestions when he convenes his economic summit meeting in Great Falls in late June.

Fifteen people gathered at a Baucus-sponsored "listening" session Thursday, pitching in rapid succession ideas about invigorating the state's economy. Baucus is gathering comments from around the state in advance of the summit meeting, which last year drew 1,100.

Not surprisingly, the meetings' geographic locations have colored their tenor. Lewistown is down about its economic fortunes, said Baucus aide Sharon Peterson. Belgrade is up.

Missoula - it almost goes without saying - is all over the map.

State Sen. Dale Mahlum, R-Missoula, doesn't want Montana to lose its agricultural past. But Tony Rudbach, of the University of Montana's research and development department, wants to make sure Montana doesn't spend too much time looking in the rearview mirror.

"I'm not sure agriculture is the future of the state," he said.

On the other hand, Rudbach doesn't think the state needs to overexert itself courting businesses from out of state. Instead, Montana ought to put its resources into businesses and people with ideas who are already here.

"We don't need more Kmarts and other big box stores," he said.

Rudbach has been working on a project to set up business incubators in Missoula, Ravalli, Lake and Flathead counties, incubators that will nourish businesses that already want to be in Montana.

The Missoula facility, which will go up in the Sheehan Majestic building on East Broadway, is already oversubscribed.

"I want to help the people we already have," Rudbach said. "The state needs to take control of its own destiny."

Indeed, Chuck Richardson, general manager of Corixa, the Hamilton biotech firm, said the state hasn't even "figured out what it wants to be when it grows up."

If Montana wants to remain a "back yard for people to play in," then get used to low-paying, tourist- industry-type jobs, he said. If the state wants to draw the sort of workers who now thrive in more urban areas, be prepared to offer better education, better roads and the like.

"When we try to hire someone, they always ask how good the schools are," he said.

Education was a touchstone Thursday, with the general consensus being that Montana has done little to better its higher education system. For one thing, it's too big, parceling scant resources to a broad network of four-year colleges, said Larry Swanson, an economist at the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

Also, the more rural areas of Montana seem to view the university system with a suspicious eye, unaware that without it Montana will wither on the economic vine, said Dick King, executive director of the Missoula Area Economic Development Corp. Recently, King said, he spoke to a Republican service group and mentioned that states with quality higher-education systems tend to flourish economically.

"They actually challenged that," he said, shaking his head. "They didn't believe me."

Swanson and King also pointed out the disparate nature of Montana's economies, noting that economic development designed for Missoula might be utterly worthless in eastern Montana. Swanson said the state needs to let local jurisdictions capitalize on their strengths through local-option taxes.

Instead, the state tries to put its economic fortunes in one basket, illogically linking the disparate economies of the eastern and western parts of the state.

"Parts of Montana have less to work with, but we've tied ourselves together," Swanson said.

Richardson best summarized the state's overall economic effort, which has positioned Montana at 48th for gross state product and 47th per capita income: "Whatever we've been doing hasn't worked."

And that will be the challenge when Baucus gathers Montanans in Great Falls for his economic summit. The meeting will held June 29-30.

Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at mmoore@missoulian.com.

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