Uh-Oh, Another ‘New’ Casino In Great Falls?

“Oh no! Another new casino in Great Falls!”.

Sorry, but that complaint is kind of misleading, because gaming licenses are tied to liquor/alcohol licenses which are controlled by the state and apportioned to communities according to population.

Think Whack-a-Mole. One has to close before another pops up. We haven’t had any “new” additional casinos here for a long time.

I’ve said this before, but because of the misperception about how our local economy works I’ll say it again: The City Commission has no legal authority to prevent any business, including a casino, from opening as long as that business meets all of the safety, permitting, zoning and state licensing requirements.

It is a common misunderstanding that the City of Great Falls local government picks and chooses which kinds of businesses we allow to open and operate here. We do not.

How many times have you heard, “Why don’t they bring in (fill in the blank)?”

There is no “they”. This is a free market economy and the kinds of businesses that open and succeed or fail in Great Falls is determined by market forces, not the City Commission or City Manager etc.

Local government can help shape the regulatory, development, and tax environment to a certain degree, but beyond that it’s up to what the marketplace will support.

If you don’t like the kinds of businesses or developments “they” are “bringing in” to Great Falls and think “they” should “bring in” the kind of businesses or developments you would like to see here, then here’s a suggestion:

Put a business plan together, invest your own money, apply for a big ol’ loan, or get a group of investors together and open that business or build that housing subdivision.

Put some of your own skin in the game – then maybe you’ll understand what a huge risk it is and how hard it is to actually start and run a profitable enterprise.

Good News And Bad News, Great Falls: Building Permits Up, Crime Up

Well, Great Falls friends and neighbors, there’s some good news and there’s some bad news.

Good News First

According to a recent analysis by the City of Great Falls Planning and Community Development Department new construction and building permits are not just on an upward trend over the past year, they’re up by a lot.

Take a look at this chart:

Now, The Bad News

Unfortunately, we also have some troubling stats related to rising crime in our town.

As you can see from this slide we have some crime issues that aren’t magically going away and that we need to deal with – a 28% increase in general case investigations!


So let’s build on the good news and do something more than complain about the bad news, Great Falls.

Redefining ‘Handout’: Calumet Gets Tax Abatement

At last weeks Great Falls city commission meeting we voted unanimously to approve a tax abatement, worth about $2.8 million over 10 years, for the Calumet refinery here.

The abatement is an incentive for Calumet’s bio-fuel expansion project which is creating more high-paying jobs in Great Falls, is environmentally friendly, and will help to boost our value added ag economy locally.

The general opinion of the commission and many of those who spoke in favor was that the decision will, in the longer term, pay back the value of the 10 year abatement, and then some, through jobs, rising property value assessments, and production output.

Calumet has been a good community partner and a major catalyst for economic stability and growth in Great Falls for a long-time.

Approving the abatement was a no-brainer in my opinion and I make no apologies or second guesses for my ‘Aye’ vote.

Here’s the head-scratcher though – during the public hearing a local “progressive” leader objected to the tax abatement for Calumet on the grounds that his tax dollars shouldn’t be used for “handouts to for-profit organizations”.

I didn’t get the memo that the word ‘handout’ had been redefined, but apparently it now means something like the following:

Every day the bully takes your $2 lunch money.

Today he only took $1.

You just got a $1 ‘handout’.

Great Falls is poised for some really great changes and some positive growth and opportunities. We need to make sure we continue to send the message that we are open for business and ready to be aggressive in attracting and KEEPING private sector businesses here.

Because in the 21st Century our competition is every other mid-sized city in the state and region. And they are chomping at the bit.

Great Falls/Cascade County Still Stagnant

At last week’s Great Falls city commission meeting we voted to approve a $150,000 funding request, using federal ARPA funds, for the Great Falls International Airport.

The money will be used as part of a matching fund package for a Small Community Air Service Development Grant (SCASD) to help lower air fares at Great Falls’ airport.

I was happy to vote in favor of the request. But in reading the agenda report I was troubled, but not surprised, by the facts presented by John Faulkner, our airport Director:

“Twenty years ago, Cascade County was the third largest county in Montana. Since that time, we have grown only 1% in population.

Meanwhile, the next slowest growing large county grew at 26 times that rate! Gallatin County grew an amazing 72 times our growth rate.

Based on these growth rates, Helena is likely to outgrow Great Falls over the next ten years.

The picture is not much better economically.

Once Great Falls was in the middle of the pack of household income, Cascade County now has the lowest and slowest growing median household income of the larger counties.

The airlines cannot rely on growth in Great Falls. In fact, they can see the market is stagnant which makes them reluctant to invest in more flights, larger airplanes or new routes.”

Unfortunately, we’ve been hearing this same sad song for far too long.

Approving the funds for the matching SCASD grant is another small step in the right direction, but we need a lot more action.

What’s it going to take to finally change the tune? I’m all ears.

Comparing Great Falls’ Economic Data To Rest Of State

This week I received and reviewed some of the latest economic data put out by Patrick Barkey and the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Once again I found it interesting, and a little discouraging to be honest, to see how Great Falls/Cascade County is faring compared to other Montana cities and counties.

Here is some of the info and data:

Tracking economic growth in terms of total wages paid to payroll workers, inflation-corrected, shows the differences in growth in the current economic recovery between the state’s most populous counties, as well as the balance of the state. Since the latest data extend only to the second quarter of 2021, the growth shown in Figure 1 refers to the changes of fiscal year 2021 (July 2020-June 2021) compared to the previous fiscal year.

Figure 1. Growth in inflation-corrected wages, FY2020-21. Sources: U.S. Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Here is Barkey’s brief analysis of what is driving this economic data in Great Falls/Cascade County:

In past years, lower rates of population in-migration and a lower presence in faster growing professional services industries has produced slower growth in Cascade (Great Falls), Lewis and Clark (Helena) and Silver Bow (Butte) counties.

That story changed this year in Lewis and Clark County with the surge of federal spending helping raise total wages in the state’s capital region by $87 million in 2021. Past growth from new facilities, such as Boeing, fell back, while health care, as in so many other parts of the state, saw good growth.

Cascade County’s total wage growth of just under $30 million in 2021 had a bit more headwind, with declines in information (media), accommodations and food and professional business services more than offset by gains in construction, health care and government.

The announcement of the new medical school in Great Falls holds some promise for gains going forward, while the challenges for Montana agriculture weigh more heavily on this urban area.”

You can find more from Barkey’s report here.

Here’s to better times and a great 2022 for Great Falls, with expanding opportunities and prosperity for all of our citizens.

Montana Minimum Wage Increase?

Editors note: Below is an email forwarded to E-City Beat from Great Falls State Representative Lola Galloway.

Dear State Representative Galloway,

As Montana continues to discuss the state’s minimum wage I wanted to call your attention to The Heartland Institute’s newest Research & Commentary examining the economic implications associated with Senate Bill 187.

Heartland’s state government relations coordinator Samantha Fillmore writes:

·         Minimum wage hikes rarely meet the expectations of the policymakers who advocate for them. For example, they do not raise the living standards in any appreciable way for individuals and families, yet illogical wage increases have the propensity to shutter small businesses for good. 

A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, titled “The Effects on Employment and Family Income of Increasing the Federal Minimum Wage,” examines how increasing the federal minimum wage to $10, $12, or $15 per hour by 2025 would adversely affect employment and family outcomes, especially among teenagers and those at the bottom rungs of the income ladder.

·         According to the study, a $15 per hour minimum wage would boost the wages of 17 million workers. However, it would also push 1.3 million workers out of a job. In almost every scenario, minimum wage hikes result in some workers seeing their wages rise, while many more lose gainful employment.

·         Given the struggles of small businesses over the past year, a minimum wage hike in 2021 could not be more ill-timed. In an analysis based on self-recorded closures in their database, Yelp estimates that 60 percent of U.S. businesses that temporarily closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have shut down permanently.

·         It is unwise for Montana lawmakers to push minimum wage hikes, which as a function of themselves result in businesses closing and increased unemployment, especially when unemployment has skyrocketed due to the ongoing pandemic. According to a brief published by the Congressional Research Service, during the pandemic, the unemployment rate has reached catastrophic levels, unseen in decades..

·         Even more worrisome, the U.S. labor participation rate has fallen precipitously since the onset of the pandemic.

More specific to Montana, almost every major industry had less employed in 2020 due to COVID-19 contraction, with specific emphasis on food, retail, and small businesses, according to the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

·         Although attempts to bolster a minimum standard of living and protecting low-skilled workers in a pandemic-world are laudable, the overall economic effects of proposed minimum wage hikes would do more harm than good in a time when every state cannot afford additional economic hardship.

I would love to assist you in any way that I can. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me at sfillmore@heartland.org or at 312/377-4000.

Best Regards,
Samantha Fillmore
Government Relations Coordinator
The Heartland Institute

Stop – In The Name Of Fairness And Common Sense

What’s a 50 meter pool that is 25 meters short? If you answered, “very short-sighted”, you’d be correct, but that’s what you are going to get with the new Indoor recreation Center and Aquatics Facility.

Why is a 50M pool an important feature of an Indoor Aquatics Center?

According to a Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) by the Economic Development Department of Las Cruces, New Mexico for a similar project, the ex ante study concluded that Swim Meets were the expected number one revenue generator for the facility. 10 swim meets per year would produce $126,000.

In addition, the economic impact of bringing in an estimated 7,500 out-of-county visitors would contribute $451,381 in sales to local businesses. The income to the local economy is “economic development”. The City’s decision to eliminate the 50M is extremely “short-sighted”.

In their latest presentation to the City Commission, the project’s architectural team said that the 25M pool/recreation facility would “cash Flow”. What does that mean? Every municipal project cash flows, it flows with tax revenues. Does it mean that operational costs do not exceed revenues generated? I think not.

The above CBA notes that “ there is not an instance in which the revenues of the new community pool exceed the operating costs of the pool. This implies that the recovery rate (based on revenues solely) will always be less that 100%. However, by adding the intangible benefits, it is possible for the benefits to exceed the costs.”

These “intangible benefits” largely are comprised of “community health benefits”, which are almost impossible to reconcile.

The City’s decision to abandon the concept of a 50M pool can now be added to the other miscues of the project’s planning, or lack thereof as evidenced by the following:

  • Choosing two properties that had presented serious soils problems that would increase construction costs when they were told in advance.
  • Made a property trade with the school district for 10 acres of swamp land that the city doesn’t need. Oh well we could use a park in that area anyway when the city already has 57 parks and Heren Park, (six acres) is only three blocks from the swamp. Say Goodbye to $150,000 of city resources.
  • The third property chosen, North Kiwanis Park had issues too, the largest one being that MAFB didn’t like it because of access issues.
  • The fourth property chosen is now Lions Park at the chagrin of a number of property owners citing traffic issues. Oh, and those will happen with swim teams coming in from outside of great Falls. The CBA, referenced above, estimates that with 10 swim meets per year, with 60 swimmers per team, it would mean 6,000 swimmers attending swim meets annually. The swimmers don’t come in VW’s, they come in busses. How’s that going to work at Lions Park?
  • Their plan to cut down 14 mature trees on Lions Park.
  • Concerns of a flawed architectural firm selection process by other local architects.

From all appearances, the undeveloped portion of Warden Park has much more going for it than Lions Park, but again the City has ignored that suggestion made in June of last year, just like they ignored the warnings about bad soils conditions on the first two chosen properties. The City will respond by saying that Warden Park is too far away from MAFB, but that’s what they said when I suggested Lions Park. Wrong again.

Again, the City put the cart before the horse by not asking property owners adjacent to Lions Park how they felt about the increased traffic resulting from the Indoor Recreation and Aquatics Facility, or how they felt about cutting down 14 mature trees.

I can say as a property owner in the neighborhood, having resided two blocks away from Lions Park beginning at its inception in 1952, that I have more knowledge of the park and its contribution to the neighborhood than anyone making these decisions.

I played on the Lions Park baseball field, skated on the ice rink and witnessed first hand the construction of the pavilion. The parking for this proposed facility will destroy an important asset for the larger neighborhood.

When I suggested Lions Park in early December, it was an attempt to test the flexibility of the base’s unfounded requirement that the new facility be immediately adjacent to the base. It is vastly more important that a new indoor recreation and aquatics facility be centrally located for all the city’s residents, and Warden Park is that location.

We would be wise to reexamine the whole site selection, consultant selection and programming process and do the right thing by the taxpayers of this community. Afterall, there’s $20.2M at stake.

If you feel the same, please contact our city commissioners and let your voices be heard via email – commission@greatfallsmt.net – or phone.

How Long Before Biden’s Climate Change Agenda Damages Great Falls?

The following excerpts are from an article in the Montana Petroleum Report newsletter entitled “BIDEN TORPEDOES KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE”, written by Alan Olson, Executive Director of the Montana Petroleum Association. You can read the entire article here.

“President Biden’s recent executive order to rescind the permits for TC Energy’s Keystone XL, including a section of the pipeline that has already been constructed, will cause serious economic consequences not only for Montana but also for the United States.”

“While some leaders in government believe they can create jobs, it is the private sector that is the job creator. Private investment in infrastructure such as the Keystone XL pipeline puts people to work in good paying jobs, provides a much-needed service, and creates wealth domestically without increasing the national debt.”

“We are deeply concerned that the Biden administration would play politics with this very important project. At a time when Americans are struggling to find work, especially the good paying jobs that this project would provide, we cannot understand why the Biden administration would turn down private investment in critical infrastructure.”

We agree. And we would ask the following:

How long before Biden’s climate change agenda begins to inflict jobs and local tax revenue casualties right here in Great Falls? Think Loenbro and Calumet Montana Refining. How long?

Will Businesses Reject Great Falls If We Don’t Pass The School Levy?

In a recent letter to the editor, Gerry Jennings urged support for the upcoming school levy. After making a suspect claim about class sizes, Jennings regurgitated an even more questionable argument about public education and its relationship to economic development.

“My four children received the best education the state had to offer during the ‘70s and ‘80s. They had choices of classes, some of which don’t exist anymore.

We are losing great teachers who are finding better opportunities elsewhere, and our classrooms are overcrowded. Is that what we want for our kids and teachers?”

Ignoring the fact that class sizes were actually larger in the 70s, Jennings suggested that passing school levies is good for the local economy, and that employers, as a result of recently failed levies, are now steering clear of Great Falls:

“Businesses are finding that potential employers are saying NO to GF, due to lack of support for our public school education.”

Really? OK, which businesses?

Jennings’ argument by implication is that a number of companies, otherwise ready to relocate to and invest in our community, were ultimately deterred from doing so because recent school levies, typically in the $1-2 million range, have at times been rejected by the voters.

Again, though, which business is she talking about?

Jennings, in addition to the many other GFPS cheerleaders who parrot this same political talking point year after year, should tell us unambiguously who said “NO” — for this reason. Is it really true that a spate of entrepreneurs was set to move into River City, but balked only when an operational levy or two fell short? Why didn’t our community’s much more substantial investment in infrastructure (the tenth of a billion dollar school bond) matter to these investors? Are the businesses Jennings talks to of the position that schools must be unquestionably supported 100%? Is it possible that, actually, businesses avoid Great Falls because of high property taxes, and not for a lack of absolute fealty to Tammy Lacey and Tom Moore?

Alternatively, since the Jennings’s of the world are convinced that funding public education is inexorably linked to economic development, a thoughtful person might ponder the inverse of this question: after Great Falls voters generously passed a $100 million bond levy in 2016 — an amount 50-100 times greater than the average operational levy — which new businesses came to Great Falls as a result of this considerable investment? What, exactly, were the measurable impacts? Did an economic renaissance sweep our community without anyone noticing?

Jennings owes us specificity, and so does every School Board candidate who wants to ram yet another permanent tax down our throats, even as we cope with a historically crippling global pandemic.

Great Falls Population Falls



In a November 24, 2019 piece by in Business Insider, Great Falls is listed right in the middle of the pack of the 20 Western state towns that folks are “leaving in droves”.

From the article:

“Using data from the Census Bureau’s Population Estimates program, we found the metropolitan areas located in the Western states with the most negative net migration between 2010 and 2018, adjusted by the size of the 2010 metro area population.

Net migration measures the number of people who moved into the metro area from some other part of the US or another country, minus the number of people who left the metro area over that period. That means the cities on our list saw many more people move out since 2010 than move in.”

And specifically concerning the Great Falls metro area:

“10. Great Falls, Montana, had a net population loss from migration of 2,252 between 2010 and 2018 — 2.8% of the metro’s 2010 population of 81,327.”

This is consistent with the data as well as the anecdotal evidence we’ve been seeing and experiencing here in Great Falls for a number of years now.

This should be another wake-up call for all of us.

We Great Fallsians live in an awesome and amazing place and it should be unacceptable to all of us that we have the reputation for being ‘Ghetto Falls’, ‘G Funk’ or the poverty capital of Montana.

The exodus from our city, of mostly younger folks I suspect, is made all the more troubling by the fact that all of the other major towns/cities in Montana are enjoying some measure of growth and development. People are moving to Helena, Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell, Billings, and even Butte at the same time they’re leaving Great Falls.

We’re not going to reverse this disturbing trend by closing our eyes, covering our ears and singing “lala lala, I can’t hear you”. Continued denial will only make things worse.

We’re going to have to come together, form a common vision, and agree to work together to CHANGE the status quo. Doing the same things we’ve been doing for the past 30 years is no longer an option.

We need new ideas and innovations and a commitment to making Great Falls the most business friendly, jobs friendly, family friendly community in Montana. We can do it. We have to do it.