County officials, economic-development advocates and other local leaders gathered Tuesday night in the KXLF building on Montana Street to honor the 50th anniversary of the Butte Local Development Corp. — one of the first organizations of its kind in Montana.
Despite being a landmark year, the event was an intimate gathering of about 40 community leaders, nibbling on popcorn and drinking cocktails out of cans inside the KXLF studio.
But what the event lacked in decadence it made up in spirit.
“It’s an incredible honor to be able to stand here this evening and celebrate all our community has accomplished through hard work, collaborations and investments in projects that have shaped Butte for the last 50 years,” BLDC Executive Director Joe Willauer said to celebrants in a speech.
Evan Barrett was one of the guests in attendance Tuesday night.
Barrett served as the BLDC’s executive director for 18 years, starting in 1986.
He spoke with The Montana Standard earlier in the day and said that the BLDC got its start in October 1969 and is the second oldest development corporation in the state. The first was the Bear Paw Development Corp. in Havre, which incorporated only about six weeks earlier, Barrett said.
The BLDC emerged during some dark days in the Butte economy, starting in the 1970s when mining began to wane until coming to a complete halt in 1983.
“We were really under economic assault,” Barrett said, looking back.
The BLDC similarly came on the scene when leaders in Butte began thinking hard about economic development. There was a sentiment in the air, Barrett said, that the city had to “get a hand on its own future.”
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Over the years the organization has taken on numerous projects, which were highlighted Tuesday night during the anniversary celebration.
One of the BLDC’s first major projects was the development of the South Butte Industrial Park in the 1970s. The organization also had a hand in developing the MSE Technology Applications complex south of Butte, where currently CryptoWatt LLC’s bitcoin mining operation resides.
Other significant economic-development efforts the BLDC has been involved with include the establishment of the Montana Connections Business Development Park west of Butte and its Tax Increment Financing Industrial District, the recruitment of REC Silicon and Montana Precision Products to the area, and the creation of the Port of Montana hub facility, among many more.
“We have many programs that have provided a tremendous amount of growth in Butte,” said Willauer. “But the most impactful program for both recruitment and retention of businesses has always been our loan office.”
Since the inception of the BLDC’s loan program, he said, the organization has lent more than $27 million to over 160 businesses in the county.
Barrett said the organization’s strength has always been its board — which he said has a history of boasting members from diverse professional backgrounds, ranging from representatives from Montana Tech to county officials — and the organization’s ability to work collaboratively with local government.
He added that serving as executive director was a satisfying and rewarding experience because he got to take part in projects that made a difference.
“It was a great job because it was a great challenge and it was of great importance to the community,” he said.
Both Willauer and Barrett said the BLDC’s work wouldn’t have been possible without its local and state partners and the Butte community itself.
“As an organization, the BLDC has had 50 successful years because of our community’s ability to rally behind a cause,” said Willauer.