Steady climb: Study shows Butte economy consistently improving

Hirbour Tower at Broadway and Main in Uptown Butte

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Butte-Silver Bow County is ranked 15th in economic strength among 531 “micropolitan” locales in the U.S. with populations between 10,000 and 50,000, according to an economic-research firm.

That’s up two spots from 2013 rankings by Florida-based Policom Corp., which says it bases its independent rankings on 23 variables for strengthening or weakening a local economy over an extended time.

It’s not just the high ranking this year that impress economic-development officials here – it’s Butte’s consistent climb over the past decade.

Policom ranked Butte-Silver Bow 376 in 2004 and it has ranked higher each year but one since, hitting 51 in 2009, 17 in 2011 and last year, and 15 now.

It continued to climb during the U.S. housing crisis and national recession from late 2007 to 2009 and the slow national recovery since. Butte’s only drop was in 2012, but it still ranked 25th in economic strength that year.

“That is totally remarkable when you think about what has happened here,” Marko Lucich, executive director of the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce, said Friday.

Chief Executive Matt Vincent said he was “guardedly optimistic” in light of the ranking, but cautioned against getting too excited or disappointed with any group’s rankings.

But, he said, “At the end of the day I think it’s good and a reflection of the slow, steady growth that is getting reported back to us” in an annual economic analysis on southwest Montana.

Helena and Bozeman have ranked highly for several years now. Helena is 3rd and Bozeman is 10th this year.

Helena ranked 2nd from 2011 to 2013 and has been in the top 15 in all but one year since 2004. Bozeman was 19th last year but ranked in the top 10 from 2004 to 2012.

Jim Smitham, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp., noted that Policom’s rankings factor in trends and sustainability and both are plusses for Butte.

“I think it shows we have a more diversified economy that will pay off in the long run,” Smitham said.

The rankings are based on a formula that factors 23 variables including earnings, jobs, per capita personal income, overall wages and salaries and those in specific sectors such as construction and retail.

Negative factors include actual and per capita welfare income and Medicaid assistance for the poor. The formula attempts to compensate for anomalies that might occur in one or two measures, as well as short-term extremes.

It also includes adjustments to factor in consistency.

Smitham noted that three “micropolitan” areas in the top five this year are Williston, Minot and Dickinson, North Dakota – all in the oil-boom Bakken region. Williston, which is No. 2, ranked 570 a decade ago and none of the three went from low to really high in just a year or two.

“I think they (Policom) are saying the economies there have seen huge increases but they are sustaining at those levels,” Smitham said.

Montana’s three largest cities – Billings, Great Falls and Missoula – were ranked among 381 metropolitan areas of the U.S. with populations above 50,000. In that group, Billings came in at 96 this year, Great Falls at 109 and Missoula 172.

Kalispell was included in the micropolitan areas and ranked 149.

Smitham said Helena’s economy has benefitted from all the state government jobs there, and Bozeman’s strengths are due in part to Montana State University and the nearby Big Sky resort area.

“In our case, we have been a transition from a heavy reliance on mining to a more diversified economy,” he said. “We have shown some pretty steady growth.”

Although Butte-Silver Bow’s population hasn’t risen dramatically, it has grown in each of the past seven years and was estimated at 34,400 in 2012.

Butte’s per capita income of $44, 641 in 2012 ranked ninth highest of Montana’s 56 counties, with the top eight all in the booming, oil-rich Bakken area of eastern Montana.

Lucich said Polimco’s rankings were based on independent analysis and the chamber was not even aware of them until four or five years ago.

“It is interesting to see how strong we are from an outsiders’ perspective,” he said.


Reporter with emphasis on government and politics.

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