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Right now, Butte’s economy probably best resembles a tortoise. Whether it can catch economic hares remains to be seen.

“We were up and down for a long time,” said NorthWestern Energy economist John Kasperick, who crunches economic numbers for the county. “Now we’re kind of slow and steady.”

Unemployment dropped in Butte for the third year in a row, and average wages are above Montana averages in many industries. There are encouraging signs for southwest Montana, but also challenges.

“The good news is that we have been on our longest growth in population for a long time,” Kasperick said. “But it’s been pretty slow.”

For each of the last eight years, Butte-Silver Bow has gained residents. But even at its peak, growth was never larger than 400 people added per year – last year was less than 100 people, the slowest growth in six years.

“Everything is a numbers game,” said Chief Executive Matt Vincent.

By that coin, it’s good news that chain restaurants like Hardee's and Buffalo Wild Wings have committed to opening in Butte. Yet, Butte also saw some high-profile closings, like JCPenney.

The best way to bolster a population base is to offer good jobs, Kasperick said. And Butte has some good jobs.

On average, jobs in Butte-Silver Bow pay $38,245 annually – about $700 more than the state average.

That doesn’t mean that every job pays more; some of the increase is driven by well-paying mining jobs in Butte. Mining jobs pay significantly above the state average. (See breakout.)

“If you have good mining and base industries, they help the overall economy,” he said.

Mining jobs are also vulnerable to fluctuations, since take-home pay is often tied to commodity prices. And heavier reliance on mining hurt Butte when the Anaconda Co. pulled out in the 1980s. But Butte has learned from that experience.

“Our industries are a little more diversified,” Kasperick said.

Manufacturing is an especially important sector.

The average manufacturing job in Butte-Silver Bow pays about $53,000, well below the natural resources and mining average of about $84,000. But manufacturing, like mining, performs well compared to the state average – a Butte manufacturing job makes 121 percent of a similar job statewide. It’s the third best-paid category in Butte-Silver Bow.

Unfortunately, the second-best paid category isn’t doing great. Butte lost 247 federal government jobs in 2014.

Bringing in jobs – and keeping ones that are already here – isn’t easy.

“That’s tough to do,” Kasperick said.

And while the county focuses on diversifying away from mining, a proposed gold mine in the Highlands could give a big boost.

A previous report from the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research projected a 2 percent growth rate for Butte-Silver Bow between 2014 and 2017. Patrick Barkey, who directs the bureau, said that prediction “may be optimistic.”

But major economic drivers have big plans. Montana Tech is pursuing ambitious goals to increase enrollment, and an aging population will likely have expanded healthcare needs – good news for St. James Healthcare.

And other areas around Butte appear healthy; Anaconda-Deer Lodge saw 2.8 percent growth and Beaverhead County experienced 3.2 percent growth in earnings from workers – take home pay, essentially.

“Overall, it’s a great area and it’s hanging in there,” Kasperick said. “We’re probably ready for that next step.”

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