While the state and federal government provide stability to Lewis and Clark County's economy, the county has struggled to keep pace with the economic growth seen in other parts of the state.
The Bureau of Business and Economic Research housed at the University of Montana presented its 2018 Economic Outlook Seminar in Helena Tuesday at the Great Northern Hotel. The seminar, which travels the state, includes talks about multiple areas of the economy, including energy, agriculture, tourism and construction.
“This is a government town and we all know that,” said director of the bureau Patrick Barkey. “Stability is a product of the economic base.”
That stability allowed Helena to weather the 2008 recession better than some other areas of the state, he said.
The economy of Lewis and Clark County is dominated by its population base in Helena, he said. The county is near the top for education, income and insurance coverage.
In the last decade, the state government has grown about 10 percent with strong growth in health care and real estate, Barkey said. Visitor services and tourism have also remained strong, and growth in the construction industry is "flying under the radar."
“It was an up-and-down year in Lewis and Clark County, and quite frankly, a tough year in state government,” he said, referring to recent state budget cuts. “That’s the big boogeyman, what will happen with state government.”
While some sectors of the economy were growing, others, such as business services and retail trade, were declining. Retail trade is at 40 percent of what it was a decade ago.
One important factor in economic growth is migration, and the bureau sees migration from other Montana counties and western states into Lewis and Clark County.
A poll of business leaders attending the conference rated 2017 compared to 2016. Of those polled, 39 percent rated 2017 better than the previous year, 35 percent the same, and 26 percent worse.
Barkey told the crowd he was generally optimistic about continued job growth in Lewis and Clark County and predicted similar growth in 2017 to 2018. It will be a struggle, however, to compete in economic growth with Bozeman, the Flathead Valley, and more recently, Missoula, he added.
Montana Department of Commerce director Pam Haxby-Cote touted the state’s economy, calling the unemployment rate “ideal” and saying that wages have grown faster than the national average.
“The economy is at a turning point,” she said.
Montana must be a leader in its natural resource industries, but also recognize a booming tourism industry. Revitalization of main streets, basic infrastructure and moderate to low income housing will all play important roles in the state’s economy, Haxby-Cote said.