The big sky doesn’t get any bigger than in Montana’s Eastern Region. This vast region, long supported by agriculture, has the most dispersed population in the state. From Miles City to Sidney, Bainville to Glasgow, the towns follow the river valleys of the Yellowstone and Missouri. Over the eons, these waters carved the Badlands, exposing hidden treasures such as dinosaur fossils and brilliant agates, their sediments covering rich deposits of oil, gas, and coal. On the rolling hills above the river bottoms, in towns like Plentywood, there are seemingly endless fields of grain. In towns like Jordan and Ekalaka, the green grass of spring feeds thriving cattle herds. The banks and Badlands of the Missouri are home to the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, while the hills, meadows and pines of the south are home to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. In total, 75,000 people live in this region; about 46,000 people are in the workforce.
Beneath the farmlands and rolling plains lie vast natural resources, including natural gas, coal and the vast Bakken oil formation. Mining and energy production are widespread from Colstrip to Culbertson. It is no surprise this region identified natural resources as its greatest economic opportunity. Attracting businesses in towns that service the oil fields and coal mines and manufacture supplies for these industries will help create stable jobs. Efforts to partner with these industries with education and workforce development centers will provide the workforce that industries need to locate to or expand within our communities.
The Eastern Region has suddenly risen to a place of economic prominence within the State of Montana. Driven by strong commodity prices and oil and gas development in the Bakken, the story line is of strong job growth. In 2012, the region added over 1,800 jobs, a growth rate of 5.1 percent, the strongest in the state. In fact, the growth has been so vigorous that some areas are experiencing worker shortages. Dawson Community College in Glendive, Miles City Community College in Miles City, Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, and Fort Peck Community College in Poplar offer a wide range of degrees, certificates and training programs. Partnerships with educators, employers and agricultural producers will create a skilled workforce and help fuel the growth.
Infrastructure is essential to this region’s growing economy. Long distances between towns necessitate travel for basic services, like shopping, banking, and health and wellness. Water and sewer systems, police and fire fighters, libraries and sidewalks, create the safe, healthy communities that are paramount to the quality of life we expect in our friendly small towns and livable cities. Access to commercial air service for businesses, rail lines for goods, and safe roads for residents are necessary to connect communities to markets beyond.