According to the surveys conducted through the Main Street Montana Project in 2013, in general, Montanans recognized the importance of their quality of life, but wanted our economy to become more diversified, with stronger wages and more jobs.
The top strengths listed by survey respondents were:
1. Quality of Life; Outdoor Recreation/Environment
2. No Sales Tax
3. Quality of Life; Safety and Infrastructure
Business owners and respondents across all regions were fairly similar in their pick of the top strengths, although those in North Central Montana also selected proximity to Canada, while those in the East added work ethic.
The top weaknesses selected in the survey include:
1. Low Wages
2. Lack of Growth/Economic Development Strategy
3. Cost of Living
Other concerns mentioned included the cost of Montana real estate, resistance to change, and distance to major ports. Montanans also universally recognized that struggling downtown businesses challenged our quality of life and economic well-being, mentioning downtowns as both a top challenge and a top opportunity. Other challenges selected were the uncertainty of healthcare reform and political or interest group opposition to development. Business owners also had business equipment taxes in their top three challenges, while Eastern Montana respondents reported challenges with the boom/bust cycle of natural resource extraction and difficulty finding workers during the current boom period.
The top three opportunities mentioned were:
1. Expanding Tourism
2. New Business Start-up Programs and Mentoring
3. Downtown Revitalization
Renewable energy, value-added agriculture, pipeline development, and natural resource development were also included in the top opportunities for some regions.
In general, Montanans ranked our strengths, weaknesses, challenges and opportunities similarly, but with some differences related to each regional economy. Responses from the Eastern Montana region reflected the challenges they are facing with the Bakken oil boom, noting difficulties in housing and recruiting workers. North Central Montana's focus on the agricultural economy was reflected in their top opportunity, value-added agriculture. North Central Montana also sees the proximity of Canada consumers as an economic strength. While Montana already does a great deal of agricultural trade with our northern neighbors, expanding that trade and diversifying into other manufactured or service goods present interesting opportunities for the region.
While the strengths and weaknesses identified were similar across regions, regions differed on their economic development priorities. Montanans were also asked what the top goals and priorities for economic development in their area should be.
The top three economic development goals identified were:
1. Encourage Growth of Existing Businesses and Industries
2. Create New Jobs
3. Diversify the Economic Base
The priorities varied among the various regions. These regional differences and viewpoints will be considered as the Main Street Montana Project continues to be implemented.
All 56 counties and seven reservations participated in the original Main Street Montana Project survey conducted in 2013. Most survey respondents (51 percent) represented the private-for-profit sector, with business owners representing 35 percent and private-for-profit employees representing 16 percent of responses. Ten percent of survey respondents represented private non-profits, while at least 21 percent represented the public sector. By industry, government made up roughly 20 percent of responses while other industries made up the rest. Business Services was the top private industry in terms of number of responses, followed by Leisure Activities. Natural Resources, Financial Services and Business Services were over-represented in the survey response compared to their employment shares in the Montana economy, while Trade, Leisure Activities, and Government were under-represented. While roundtable participants tended to be male, 56 percent of survey respondents were women, including 259 women business owners. Participants tended to be more educated than the population as a whole, with over 65 percent having a college degree or higher and nearly 25 percent having a graduate or professional degree. Survey respondents were generally from 35 to 64 years old. Every country was represented in the survey, with the Eastern and Southwest portions of the state having higher survey participating than expected given their populations.