This article appeared in the Great Falls Tribune Sunday Edition on August 23, 2009, written by Business Editor Jo Dee Black. Ms. Black visited the area, interviewing several local business owners about their impact on economic growth in our community.
HARLOWTON - The 1970 Census documented 3,026 residents of Wheatland County. But just four years later, the major employer of the area, the Milwaukee Railroad, announced it was ceasing operations.
John Peccia ended his career as a car inspector for the railroad in Harlowton in the 1970s. He was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Harlowton City Council in 2000, a year when Census employees recorded 2,259 people who called Wheatland County home, a 25 percent drop from the number 30 years before that. Peccia will give up his seat as mayor after the next election. Now the latest estimates say 2,010 live in the county, 11 percent fewer than in 2000. Harlowton, the county seat, has 1,062 residents.
"Our economy hasn't been that great, not since the railroad pulled out," said Peccia. "But this is a good community. We have a hospital and good schools. I've never had a reason to move."
Although agriculture remains the area's number one industry, there's more to this central Montana community than a feed store and grain elevator. On the east side of the town, Cream of the West packages the company's signature hot cereals, granola-type crunches and other food products. The 95-year-old company moved from Billings to Harlowton eight years ago after seven ranch families from the area purchased it. Today two families continue the operation.
In addition to the company's traditional cereal products, Cream of the West is working to offer organic products, ramping up its on-line store and recently joined forces with the Montana FFA to create a line of products for fundraisers.
"We've learned a lot since," said Alicia Moe, who owns the business with her husband, Richard, and Steven and Susan Moore.
Originally, the group of investors explored the feasibility of opening a bio-oil plant in the area to add value to the small grain crops. When that venture didn't pencil out, they made an offer for Cream of the West.
"We were looking at economic development opportunities for Harlowton," said Moe. "This is a primary sector business, manufacturing. It's a brand people recognize. I like to call it our home grown stimulus package."
Cream of the West employs a staff of four, in addition to the owners. Although at first glance, the business may not appear to be a major employer, that's not how production manager Bobby Lewis views it. After moving to Harlowton as a teen, Lewis earned a degree in manufacturing engineering technology from MSU Northern in Havre. His education is a perfect fit for the company.
"In rural areas, economic development really is one job at a time,' said Kathy Bailey, executive director of Snowy Mountain Development Corp. in Lewistown, the economic development agency for six counties in central Montana, including Wheatland County. "These little advances don't get a lot of attention individually, but they really add up."
Mike Yinger didn't attraction a lot of attention when he first ventured into Harlowton seven years ago. But today his company, Elk River Systems, employs 14 workers in the town, who prepare tickets, wristbands, posters and more for events across the country.
A former IBM executive, Yinger spent 15 years in Big Fork developing a business that takes orders for tickets and other printed material over the Internet. He went to Big Timber to look at a building to house the printing end of the operation.
"That building ended up being in pretty bad repair, but a friend had told me to stop in Harlowton," Yinger said. He bought a 1909 era building and two lots for $24,000. Today, that original site and an additional building house ticketprinting.com and perforatedpaper.com.
"When I worked for IBM, I was in Gary, Ind., which is a pretty desolate place, so when IBM located there, the community thought it was wonderful," said Yinger. "I was really impressed with that sentiment and want to do something similar."
Today Elk River System is among the top three private employers in town, competing with Wheatland Memorial Healthcare and Citizen's Bank and Trust Co. for entry level workers.
"Our biggest challenge to economic growth is probably the lack of population" said Scott Mitchell, chief executive officer of Wheatland Memorial Healthcare, which has 100 employees. "We have a large percentage of retired people in our population. Our inventory of housing in good condition is low. It's hard to recruit new people to the area."
"There're only so many people to go around," said Thomas Bennett, a Wheatland County Commissioner who is also the owner of Wade's Drive Inn in Harlowton.
There are bright spots, however, in the community's economy. When Invenergy erected a wind farm just south of Judith Gap in Wheatland County, the county received about $2 million in impact fees when the turbines were under construction. The interest from the principal of those funds is paid to the school districts in the county and non-profit organizations annually.
Farmer, rancher, and real estate developer David Miller recently created a 19-lot subdivision north of Harlowton and has sold seven lots. "There are four new homes in varies stages of being built," Miller said.
Miller also owns a real estate business and said buyers are a mix of retirees looking for a community with access to healthcare and an affordable cost of living and some new comers.
"With the Internet, people can run their businesses from anywhere and we do see some people like that moving in," he said. The Wheatland County native admits he's one of the community's biggest promoters. "I'm an eternal optimist, I believe in this community and try to do my best to help it thrive," said Miller. Other lifetime residents appreciate such efforts.
"I do notice a lot of new people in town," said Peccia.