DCEDC improves the economic vitality and quality of life in the community

Guest Opinion By Jason Stuart
Sunday, December 19, 2021
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The Dawson County Economic Development Council has a clear direction, with an holistic approach to economic development that may appear unconventional to some, but is in fact how many community economic development agencies in the United States today operate, especially those in smaller cities like ours. While our organization — like many non-profits in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — does face significant fiscal challenges, that has not nor will it deter us from working hard to bolster economic development and activity in Glendive.

We’d like to share with you some of the efforts and successes the DCEDC has been at the forefront of this past year to improve the economic vitality and quality of life of our community.

Perhaps the most important and critical economic development activity the DCEDC has been at the forefront of is the effort to restore passenger rail service through Glendive and the rest of southern Montana, a service Glendive lost 42 years ago. Exactly one year ago, due to the efforts of the DCEDC, Dawson County became one of the 12 founding members of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority. Since that time, I have become the Vice Chair of the BSPRA, and am deeply and intimately involved in this critical effort. And with the recent passage of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes both funding for the potential restoration of discontinued long-distance routes and requirements for the U.S. Department of Transportation to study those former routes, tangible progress towards the restoration of that service is already being made.

We firmly believe that we can say without hyperbole that this is the most important economic development effort in Glendive/Dawson County in at least the last 50 years, and the DCEDC is leading in that effort. The restoration of passenger rail service will be a major economic boon to our community, providing increased economic activity for our hotels, retail stores, restaurants and tourism sites. It will help create new opportunities for new businesses to open and flourish. It will create new jobs for ticket agents, baggage handlers, depot staff and other support services. It may even present an opportunity to put the now decommissioned locomotive repair shop back in operation. And it will improve the quality of life for our community, providing our residents with another option for travel that is safe, weather-proof, reliable and affordable.

The DCEDC also successfully worked with the Bureau of Land Management, the Montana Department of Transportation and the office of Sen. Jon Tester to coordinate and facilitate the placement of signs along Interstate 94 providing notice and direction to travelers of the location of the Short Pines OHV Area. Short Pines is a critical asset in Glendive’s exponentially growing tourism/outdoor recreation economy, but until now, most travelers to and through Glendive had no idea it even existed.

Within a day of the signs going up, a local hotel clerk posted on Facebook noting that a group of out-of-state travelers, who were on their way further west to ride their OHVs, saw the signs as they passed through town and decided to stop, stay the night and ride at Short Pines. That is a bona fide economic development success story, and one that cost neither the DCEDC nor any of our local governments a cent. We have no doubt that more and more visitors to Montana who are OHV enthusiasts will now come to discover Short Pines — and spend their dollars in Glendive in the process — thanks to something as simple as installing signs for it on the interstate.

While we have not crowed about it or attempted to claim credit for its opening, the DCEDC did also play a small role in helping bring a new retail business to Glendive, providing additional jobs and another location for our residents to shop. The DCEDC provided the corporate location scouts with Dollar Tree a list of available properties in town, including the contact information for the owners of the West Glendive strip mall which eventually led them to opening the store in that location. While we would not go so far as to claim that we “brought” that business to Glendive, we certainly provided important assistance. And we also believe that our efforts over the past couple of years to actively market Glendive as a viable and attractive location for new retail stores via online and social media outlets may have played a role in the company choosing Glendive for a new location.

In October of this year the DCEDC brought the community our biggest and best “Celebrate Glendive” yet, which saw people descend in droves downtown along Merrill Avenue, providing a major benefit to our downtown businesses, who reported back to us afterwards that they were very pleased with the business the event generated for them. “Celebrate Glendive” will be back in 2022, and is currently scheduled for Friday, May 6.

Just after we completed “Celebrate Glendive,” we also formed a planning committee to begin planning the launch of a major new festival event for Fall 2022, a multi-day, Oktoberfest-style festival that will celebrate the German and Scandinavian heritage that many of our region’s residents share. We believe this will provide a major economic boost for our community, drawing in visitors from around the wider region to stay in our hotels and patronize our local businesses while they attend the festival.

Looking at that list, some may think that the DCEDC isn’t doing what it should do, that we should be out there trying to reel in some major industry or manufacturer that will bring in dozens if not hundreds of jobs in one fell swoop. It’s not that we don’t keep our eyes and ears open for those kinds of opportunities — we do. And if ever we see an opportunity that we would have a legitimate chance at landing, we will of course go for it full tilt. But if that was all that we were doing, and all that we were putting our efforts towards, we wouldn’t be accomplishing much.

The simple truth is that the chances of Glendive landing some major industry are just not that great. We are severely hampered by floodplain issues. We lack city services — especially water — going out to developable properties that are located outside of the floodplain. Almost all the Requests for Proposals we see nowadays from companies show no interest in building a new facility from scratch. Instead they are always looking for an existing building of 100,000 square feet or more that they can buy or lease and move right into, something we simply do not have. If the right opportunity were to come along, we will fight for it tooth and nail. But, given the abovementioned limitations, as well as others too detailed for us to go into here, for us to put all of our efforts and energies into that would make as much sense as it would for us to go off on a unicorn hunt.

And so while most of what we do may not seem like it makes that big of a splash, we are by increments improving the economic vitality and quality of life of our community. And we will continue to build on those small successes, one brick at a time, and in doing so we will fulfill our mission to aggressively promote economic vitality through creating new businesses, tourism and community development while preserving the culture of Dawson County.

Jason Stuart is the executive director of the Dawson County Economic Development Council. He can be reached at dcedc@midrivers.com.