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Flathead Business Year in Review
The top business stories of 2009
Boxes of wafers are seen stacked in a room where customer demos are completed at Semitool in Kalispell. - File photo by Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
By all accounts, this was a rough year for Northwest Montana’s economy. We struggled through soaring unemployment as the region’s major industries ached, the real estate market continued to sing the blues and longtime businesses faltered.

But there were bright spots. New businesses opened, certain sectors of the economy saw growth, grassroots efforts revitalized downtowns, and the area’s major electricity provider continued to take the lead in alternative energy.

It’s safe to say the 2009 economy won’t be forgotten soon. Here is a review of the year’s top business stories.

Plum Creek Timber Co., long synonymous with the Flathead Valley, closed three of its facilities in Pablo, Evergreen and Fortine. Hundreds lost their jobs, leaving the company with only four operating facilities in Montana, a far cry from its heyday. Plum Creek hopes to reopen its Evergreen mill. But for now, officials there, like at Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., are facing an uncertain future. The recent shutdown of Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. isn’t helping matters.

Semitool, one of the largest employers in the valley, struggled early in 2009, announcing multiple layoffs. But a surge in the semiconductor industry allowed the company to rehire and post its largest sequential increase in bookings since the company went public in 1995. Then in November, came the news that Semitool is being sold to Applied Materials Inc. for $364 million. How this affects the local workforce remains to be seen.

Counties in Northwest Montana had the highest unemployment rates in the state throughout the year. The unemployment rate in Sanders County reached 17.7 percent, while Lincoln saw 16.6 percent and Flathead peaked at 12.7 percent. But as a state, Montana maintained one of the lowest rates in the nation between 6 and 6.5 percent.

Last December, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company told employees it would be shutting down operations within 60 days. Then officials announced in February that the company had reached an agreement with the Bonneville Power Administration, allowing it to remain open. July brought another shutdown scare. But then the hammer dropped in October, leaving the final 88 employees without jobs. A new electricity agreement would be necessary to reopen.

Flathead Electric Cooperative has taken the lead in alternative energy in Montana. On June 26, the cooperative unveiled, in partnership with the county, a biomass system that converts methane gas emitted from the Flathead County landfill’s trash into energy. Also, Rep. Denny Rehberg secured $491,000 for Flathead Electric to pursue geothermal exploration near Hot Springs. The cooperative has also looked into “Smart Grid” technology.

Fearing tighter gun laws with the Obama administration, many Americans went on gun-purchasing sprees. The Flathead, quietly a strong firearms manufacturing center, was well positioned to take advantage of this uptick. Companies such as Montana Rifleman saw a surge in sales. Meanwhile, Sonju Industrial formed SI Defense, a branch of the company that manufactures AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifles. Business has been robust.

The availability of federal stimulus funds altered the business tactics of companies across Montana in 2009. With the economy in the dumps, out-of-work contractors competed for stimulus-created projects. In Northwest Montana, stimulus monies combined with federal earmarks to expedite bidding on the U.S. 93 Alternate Route, formerly known as the U.S. 93 Bypass. The exact number of jobs created through stimulus projects in Montana remains a subject of debate.

The First Best Place Task Force led a grassroots effort to liven up downtown Columbia Falls and stimulate the economy. The group was instrumental in promoting the Glacier Discovery Center, which is expected to be the town’s improved community center. In Kalispell, the Business Improvement District and Kalispell Downtown Association made similar strides in revitalizing the city’s core.

In March, after two years of debate and deliberation, the Kalispell City Council voted to impose transportation impact fees. But the fees remained, and still remain, a source of consternation for many in the business community. Debate also swirled over the exemptions of some developers from the fees. Incoming Mayor Tammi Fisher has been a critic of the fees.

The once fertile real estate market in western Montana came crashing down in 2007 and 2008, and the slide continued into 2009. Foreclosures throughout Flathead County became all too common. But the Northwest Montana Association of Realtors and the Montana Building Industry Association reported an increase in home sales and housing starts in October and November. Housing officials are cautiously optimistic that the upswing will continue in 2010.

In October, the state’s full smoking ban went into effect, prohibiting smoking in enclosed public places and work places, despite protests from tavern and casino owners. Perhaps an unforeseen result of the ban is the migration of smokers to American Indian reservations, where they can gamble and smoke legally.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the medical marijuana business began booming in Montana. Whitefish imposed a temporary ban on all marijuana businesses while it formulates a permanent law to govern this new sector of the economy. Other cities will be faced with similar decisions and it doesn’t appear the issue is slowing down any time soon.

In November, TeleTech announced it is hiring 100 new employees at its Kalispell site. The announcement was met with lines of hopeful applicants. Unemployment, as of November, is still more than 10 percent in Flathead County.
 
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