Missoula Chamber Meeting Considers State of Small Business in Montana

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in the annual State of Missoula Commerce Report hosted by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. The event, called “The Impacts of Small Business: A National, Regional and Local Perspective,” focused on small business health in Missoula, Montana’s second largest city, as well as the rest of the state. One highlight was a resource fair showcasing federal, state, and private services, as well as tools available to small businesses throughout the city and state.

The list of participants included the Small Business Administration district office; the Missoula Economic Partnership, promoting business opportunities in Missoula; and the Montana Business Expansion and Retention Office, a joint partnership of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Montana Departments of Commerce and Labor, and the Montana Economic Developers Association.

As the Regional Advocate for the area, I shared the panel with Barbara Wagner, senior economist at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Research and Analysis Bureau; Michael Braun, associate professor at the University of Montana School of Business Administration and an expert on family-run enterprises; and David Glaser, a small business development expert.

Missoula Chamber event

Several hundred small business owners attended, representing a broad mix of existing small businesses and those looking to launch entrepreneurial endeavors.  Montana industry is based around agriculture, mining and lumber development. These traditional businesses—mining and drilling operations, sawmills and timber-centric enterprises, and natural gas wells—are the foundation of a new wave of businesses in the finished wood product industry and the burgeoning energy exploration field.  High-tech and service industries are also well represented in the computer support areas, human resource operations, and telecommunications and software engineering.

The event offered an incredible array of resources available to support existing small business owners and potential startups.  The SBA’s standard offerings—credit, counseling and contracting—are supplemented by municipal, state, and private resource partners offering complementary services.

Many participants were cautious about small business growth, after surviving the trials of economic recession; but they were optimistic about opportunities despite the slow pace of economic recovery.   Small business owners have been reluctant to take on new loans for leases or equipment or even to hire new employees as demand for products and services has yet to return to pre-recession levels.  Many attendees were eager to aggressively market their products and services, demonstrating that the “wait and see” attitude may have run its course.

Much of the business growth in Montana is attributed to small business startups.  In fact, the Montana Department of Labor estimates startup companies and entrepreneurs have created more than 60,000 new jobs in Montana during the past five years despite the economic recession.  Montana has a rich history of family-run businesses and entrepreneurial self-reliance, attributed to its tight-knit communities and the downsizing of large industry to smaller economic entities.

As the event wound down and the multitude of small business owners and would-be entrepreneurs had their last words with resource partners and local officials, I was struck at the continued level of optimism and growing curiosity of small business owners who are intent on making use of the new opportunities available to them.

—by John Hart, Region VIII Advocate

John Hart  is the Office of Advocacy’s Regional Advocate for Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. He can be reached at john.hart@sba.gov.

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