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Economic report shows challenges still facing Western Montana

Posted at 10:55 AM, Feb 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-04 12:55:22-05

MISSOULA — Face-to-face businesses -- and the people they employ -- are still struggling as the pandemic continues in Western Montana.

The latest data from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at the University of Montana is showing some deeper, long-term challenges needing attention.

While the newly released economic forecast from the BBER shows resiliency for Missoula as well as bright spots like tech growth and construction, the numbers also show soft spots.

During this week's economic summit Missoula Economic Partnership CEO Grant Kier said face-to-face operations -- like bars and restaurants -- have been on a business rollercoaster, especially last fall when rising COVID-19 case numbers and bad weather stalled the earlier recovery.

“We had that moment where we have a huge October storm and that just changed the game for many folks who were offering services on their patios and outdoors where suddenly nobody was coming out. Nobody was willing to eat outside,” Kier said.

“And I think it was that that real moment that we saw the transition from people barely able to eke by, to really pass their PPP funding without much help, and really under dire stress for their local businesses,” Kier continued.

But the stress isn't just at work. Kier says as many as one in five parents have had to work at home while caring for children under age 13, some spending four-to-eight hours per day juggling priorities -- a situation made worse with the loss of child care operators.

“I think we saw some real drop in productivity in the community and a huge increase in fatigue, stress, anxiety,” Kier told MTN News. “And I think those things have had a real impact on people's tolerance and ability to sort of weather the economy over this past year.”

However, there are strange numbers at play, such as the artificial impact of those stimulus checks.

“When you look at the money that came into the state from the CARES Act, it really solidified income both for consumers and for businesses,” noted BBER director Patrick Barkey.

That shows up in the data for some of Western Montana's smaller counties too. Ravalli County is showing a sharp drop in employment starting last spring, but an artificial offset because people received stimulus checks and other assistance.

“Which did show up as a wage decline in Ravalli County with a rebound after that point,” Barkey explained. “And finally, you see this personal income swing. That's a huge increase in personal income and in Year 2020 that wasn't driven by what was happening in a job market. It was driven more by federal transfers.”

While Kier says Missoula has had some of the "best recovery in the state", he says the community has to work on serious issues -- including the loss of childcare providers, the "churn" in people moving from job-to-job, and especially the growing lack of affordable housing.