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Beaverhead's usually rock-steady economy is seeing some excitement
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Beaverhead's usually rock-steady economy is seeing some excitement

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"Usually we don't even feel" economic trend lines, Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley said Thursday. "Other places can be in a recession or growing and we just stay steady."

But now, he said, things are a little different. "We've got a lot going on," McGinley said. "There's a lot of economic activity around Dillon."

McGinley, who attended Thursday's Economic Outlook Seminar at NorthWestern Energy in Butte, said Dillon was finally feeling the increased economic energy that seems to be spreading around much of southwest Montana.

Joe Willauer, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp., which is in a joint venture with Headwaters RC&D, said that Headwaters "had a really big year" in Beaverhead County last year, underwriting about $500,000 in loans, half in Dillon and half in the rest of the county.

"When we're able to put that kind of money on the ground, that means new businesses, expanding businesses, creating jobs and retaining jobs," Willauer said.

RayAnn Sutton, the volunteer president of the Dillon Local Development Corp., who helped to spearhead the dramatic, grassroots-driven development of Jaycee Park in downtown Dillon, said she's certainly seeing that energy in town.

She pointed to the redevelopment of the Andrus Building, a historic three-story brick building on Idaho Street that initially housed a hotel — and now will do so again, as a new boutique hotel is expected to open in May 2020. The building will also host a brand-new archery business, Sutton said.

Next door to Birkenbuel Brands on Idaho Street is Emporium 406, a new store with Montana-made and vintage wares.

"The park has just made a huge difference" downtown, she said, with families able to come down and enjoy the park as well as the shopping. Plans are this year to replace the interior and exterior sidewalks and boulevards around the block-square park.

The stability in Dillon has come from great institutions like University of Montana-Western, the regional Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service headquarters, and Barrett Hospital and HealthCare.

"We are very fortunate to have all of them," Sutton said.

The University of Montana Western has managed to increase enrollment with its all but unique "block" schedule system, in which student delve deeply into one subject at a time. The town itself has embraced the university's innovative system. "A lot of local businesses work in partnership" with the UM Western, Sutton said, providing students with "hands-on experience."

Just last week, Dillon-based Montana Center for Horsemanship, which offers a four-year accredited bachelor of science degree in partnership with the University, announced it had received a $250,000 grant, subject to obtaining matching funds, for expansion to develop classrooms, a conference center, kitchen, restrooms and a veterinary research area.

Willauer said that tourism in Beaverhead County is thriving and represents a growing sector of the economy. "Dillon is just a super rural community," he said. "Very few have the great downtown, a university, and all the recreational opportunities" that Dillon has.

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