Public lands, more retirees and a shift away from traditional outdoor jobs are among the reasons Montana’s personal income grew by 15 percent more than the national average since 2001, according to a recent economic report.
Headwaters Economics, with offices in Bozeman and Helena, presented the results of its study at the first Haymakers Summit in Bozeman on Friday. The summit brought together entrepreneurs, business leaders and Sen. Jon Tester to discuss the influence of public lands and other factors on the economy of Montana.
When Sarah Calhoun, founder and owner of White Sulphur Springs-based Red Ants Pants, first moved to Meagher County, it had the lowest income of any county in the country, she said.
“It was just being lonely and scared but I pitched in, got to know the people and they took me in,” she said of becoming part of the community.
The Connecticut native started Red Ants Pants in 2006, which manufactures work pants for women. Calhoun’s goal was an American manufacturing business run with integrity.
By all accounts she succeeded, integrating a growing business with an annual music festival bringing thousands of people and millions of dollars into the county.
Calhoun’s story resonated with many people at the summit; themselves and their employees having made the same choice to develop Montana’s economy with industries once more typical of places with higher populations.
While Montana’s outdoor amenities are often cited as a primary reason for residence, many businesses are able to use the landscape and lifestyle to bolster the state’s often lower salaries to hire better employees.
“We can’t meet salaries in other states but we can provide the natural beauty around us,” said panelist Anne Marie Quinn, CEO of Montana Molecular. “It’s a big part of what the people that work for Montana Molecular enjoy.”
“Half the salary is scenery,” said Steve Sanford, president of product designer Salient Technologies.
Between 2001 and 2013, Montana outperformed the national average in several economic categories such as personal income, per capita income and employment, the report said.
Population growth has followed the ability to access public lands. Counties with high proportions of federal lands have grown in population while many of those with low proportions dropped, the report said.
Across the West, counties without big cities saw an income link to protected federal lands, according to the report. In 2010, per capita income was $436 higher per 10,000 acres of protected federal land in a county. Headwaters chose not to include urban counties because of the multitude of economic factors at play, said Chris Mehl, Headwaters policy director.
Jobs in those counties with more than 30 percent protected federal lands increased four times faster than counties with no protected lands, the report said.
“People move here because they want to live here,” said panelist Cheryl Ridgely, Chief of Strategy and Business Development at Bozeman Deaconess Health Services. “We don’t have to sell recruits on Bozeman, which makes it much easier to recruit talent.”
St. Peter’s Hospital in Helena has seen a similar willingness among professionals to choose lifestyle over higher pay and bigger hospitals, said Kendra Lenhardt, director of clinic business operations.
Traditional outdoor jobs like mining and agriculture have largely shifted to service-based industries in the overall state economy. In the five fastest growing counties of Gallatin, Flathead, Broadwater, Lewis and Clark and Yellowstone, the trend is particularly pronounced, with Broadwater the only county counting mining as a top-three industry, the report said.
Along with a shift in job type, income type has also moved more towards non-labor income, which includes investments, age related payments and hardship payments. Those older than 55, many with higher investment incomes and age-related payments, in the last four decades have moved into counties with plentiful protected public lands at seven times the rate of counties with low amounts of protected lands, which saw a drop.
Non-labor income accounted for $16.7 billion in 2013, or 42 percent of the total state economy, making it more than eight times construction’s share.
Not everyone was excited to hear about jumping populations and high-tech industries bringing in employees from out of state, although many companies said they try to recruit Montana students.
One member of the crowd asked the panel of business leaders what would happen if an influx of people caused the outdoor amenities to diminish.
Research had shown that protected land still equated to higher incomes in places like California and Colorado, Mehl said.
Many panelists spoke of the growth as an inevitability.
“It’s pretty obvious this place is growing; we can’t stop that so what can I do?” said Dennis Dixon, president of software company Zoot Enterprises. “I can help create high-paying service jobs that are clean and provide a good quality of life.”
Sen. Jon Tester closed the meeting, touting the importance of Montana’s outdoor lifestyle and blasting recent pushes to transfer ownership of federal lands to the state. Such a move would not work, he said.
Management of federal lands does need improvement, but that should come through collaborative solutions at the local level, he said.
“We’re very lucky to live in the state we live in,” Tester said. “We all take things for granted at times, but this state has incredible tools other states don’t have.”