Healthy and ready for growth

Businesses in the Lewistown area have performed well throughout the pandemic compared to other places in Montana and the country, according to a recent assessment.
Conducted between January and July 2021, “The Lewistown Area Business and Economic Wellness Assessment” revealed that businesses in the region were resilient in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic.
“We did this assessment because we wanted to see where our businesses are at with the impacts of COVID,” said Carly Wheatley of Snowy Mountain Development Corporation. “It was really relieving to see that we weren’t in the position of a lot of other areas, and that our businesses are resilient with the ability to adapt. “
The assessment was funded by the Snowy Mountain Development Corporation and the Lewistown Tax Increment Finance District, and conducted by Freestone Development. A steering committee made up of local leaders from the private and public sectors represented various perspectives on the general health of businesses in the region and the impacts of the pandemic.

As stated in the report, “Many obstacles and difficulties resulting from the circumstances of 2020 were overcome by most of the companies and provided an opportunity for business development. “
This conclusion was drawn from several responses, including questions about the current health of their business in relation to the COVID economy. Eighty percent of respondents said their business was just as healthy, if not healthier, than it was before the pandemic, while 20% said their business was still trying to recover from the pandemic.
“Businesses have struggled,” Wheatley said. “Not to lessen their struggles, but because of the way they adjusted and pivoted, they survived.”
Wheatley attributes this to the general character of those who live and work in the area.
“I think it’s the foundation of our community in general,” Wheatley said. “With this agriculture-based mentality and strength, I think it’s in our blood to adapt and move forward. It’s the Montana way.
More than half of those surveyed were also able to maintain or increase their jobs in 2020.
“The number of companies that increased employment throughout the pandemic was surprising,” Wheatley noted. “We were fortunate that our companies were ready to fight for what they created.”
Employers said they also needed to be more creative in recruiting and retaining employees, with a third of respondents saying they made adjustments to employee needs, such as working remotely or alternate shifts.
“We had a great discussion about how businesses are changing to meet the needs of their employees and to accommodate things like child care,” said Wheatley. “Businesses in the region have traditionally been more traditional, but young people have different needs, especially when it comes to benefits. Some companies have changed to offer more options a la carte for benefits.

While the assessment indicated that the region is poised for growth, it also highlighted the biggest barriers for employers, including a lack of affordable housing, a lack of child care services and a shortage of skilled labor available.
A separate study conducted in conjunction with the Business Assessment found that child care facilities only meet 43% of child care needs in Fergus County.
The housing market, which has seen a 15-40% increase since 2019, is also a source of frustration.
But, according to the Business Assessment Report, the most controversial issue for respondents was access to affordable, quality broadband.
“What surprised us, or hasn’t been expressed so much before, is the broadband issue,” said Wheatley.
In focus groups conducted during the assessment, it was discovered that one of the region’s major Internet service providers, Mid-Rivers, is not the “legacy provider” for the Town of Lewistown. .
An incumbent supplier is recognized by the Federal Communications Commission and has better access to federal funding and resources. According to the report, CenturyLink holds the title, but shows little desire to elevate the quality of service to residents of the Lewistown area.
Without funding for mid-sized towns like Lewistown, Wheatley noted, companies like Mid-Rivers are essentially developing broadband infrastructure on their own with little or no return for the costly effort.
“With broadband, it may be our local representatives who need to identify what needs to be done [at a higher level]Said Wheatley.

Moving forward
As the pandemic emerges, the main concerns of business owners are supply chain reliability, market volatility, demand for goods and services, and access to labor.
Wheatley said the completion of the assessment is huge for the Town of Lewistown and the surrounding area.
“Lewistown is in a very good position to have been able to do this study,” said Wheatley. “Many cities are now following in the footsteps of what we have already done. This puts us in a better position when opportunities, like financing, arise. ”
She stressed that the findings and recommendations give the public a starting point to meet the needs of the community.
“What this has done is document all the things that we weren’t totally unaware of, the current needs of businesses and what we can do to meet those needs,” Wheatley said.
According to the report, this is a turning point for the town of Lewistown.
“Lewistown is at a critical growth stage,” the report says. “The economy is healthy, businesses are poised to grow, and outside forces are pushing new residents to the area. In order to shape its future, Lewistown must quickly respond to the goals identified in this assessment. “
This will require the contribution and leadership of community members.
“I encourage anyone who hasn’t read the report to go and read it,” said Wheatley. “Maybe they’ll see something they’re passionate about and can tackle it.”

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