Thursday, July 24, 2008

VALIER BRAINSTORMING

It appears to me that our discussions about Valier always fall into the same trap, which is describing what we want the town to look like and what kind of people we want to move here, instead of looking at the real economic base for growth. So what IS the economic base of Valier?

Of course, the keystone business is the Pondera Canal company and the irrigation it makes possible. They are low-key and we forget.

Agriculture

Of the two basic kinds, livestock and grain growing, we seem to have slightly more grain growing, which is of two kinds: irrigated and dry-land. Primary crops are wheat and barley, with activity in the breeding of new kinds. I’m not aware of organic grain farmers in the immediate vicinity. Alternative crops include canola, flax, pulse, and alfalfa.

Profit making pluses include ag chemical businesses. Chemical fallowing fields increase business, but the high cost of petroleum-derived chemicals are a detriment. (I’m nervous about consequences for human physiology.) CRP is good for individuals since they don’t have the cost of farming their land, but now the value of ethanol-producing crops is very high and there is talk of returning land to production. Since those on CRP sold their machinery, if there’s a return, dealers should be looking at good business. I do not know which ethanol crops will grow here. Switch grass? Not corn. Custom cutters are seasonal and transient.
When the newly negotiated Blackfeet water rights kick in five years from now, they represent a 30% loss of water. If this combines with drought, some folks will be out of business.

The elevator and railroad spur are dependent on grain production. They seem to be doing fine but how does the town relate to them? Could a small passenger vehicle on the tracks, possibly electrical, shuttle us to Great Falls?

Livestock is mostly cattle with a sub-theme of sheep, hogs, and chickens. Derived businesses are feed companies, veterinarians, meat-cutters, and labor for daily care, birthing, vaccination, AI, and so on. Transporting animals is done with trucks. At least one trucking business here is local.

So far as I know there is not much local truck gardening except for the Hutterites. There seems to be potential in hydroponics and greenhouses since transportation and the potential for contamination in distant foods are high. Would our successful greenhouse (a relatively new business) consider renting greenhouse space in winter for individuals to grow, say, lettuce?

Services

A local grocery store is increasingly vital as it becomes more expensive to drive to the larger towns, but monopolies are never good and a small store can’t stock the broad range of foods some people are used to. Food distributors find Valier in an awkward spot off the Interstate.

The newspaper has been moved to the equivalent of “off-shore” ownership so there is only a reporter in town instead of owners. The Great Falls Tribune talks quietly of discontinuing a paper version, which represents a possible job loss. If they did that, only people with computers would have access. The Trib rarely sends their reporters here, picking up our news through indivduals or local newspapers. We don’t seem to get the Conrad paper in Valier.

We’re down to one commercial service station combined with liquor store, video rental, and quickstop food. Netflix is probably hurting the video rentals. The laundromat is gone. This is the location of the only ATM in town. But there are card gas services at Hank Taylor. We have a couple (three?) mechanics, one of them (Fitz) with as much or more business as he can handle, partly because of quality work and partly because he specializes in engine rebuilding.

The library is going strong, moving into serving groups such as kids’ educational programs and offering readings. They hope to expand. The mayor claims they have more money than the town. Certainly everyone admires the architect designed building and the pleasant fireplace.

The motel is completely renewed. It’s biggest problem now is heat in winter.
Eating and drinking establishments seem to be thriving. The Panther is redecorated and busy, the Lighthouse draws people from a hundred miles away, and Froggies is booming.

The post office seems to be stable and efficient. UPS and FedX the same.
Valier clinic is newly rebuilt with community help. This building also shelters chiropractic service. Professional counseling is only a few doors away.
In the past there were bakeries, but none now unless one counts Hutterites or unless someone has a home business. There is no community commercial “food business incubator,” like a certified kitchen people could use for a business based on canning or baking. Squiers have a home-based baking and preserves business connected to their berry and potato fields.

The lunch program for seniors just bought new stoves. The “Senior Surrey” looks to be revived. I don’t know about outreach such as visiting nurses or social services.
I don’t know about you, but I find Wells Fargo too big, arbitrary and profit-oriented to be worth bothering with.

Infrastructure

School
Emergency services: fire, police and EMT
Town streets, water and sewer
Natural gas line
Electricity
Churches
No wood yard
Garbage pickup and roll-off.
The airport
Cell phone service is inadequate.
The cable television service seems ended by satellite television.
Through-the-air television broadcast is not maintained and will be transformed with the switch to digital. It is county rather than town. There is no town radio or television.
Internet-based streaming technology is growing so quickly that both telephone and satellite access need to be pretty capacious.

Niche businesses, brick-and-mortar or online

Fabric-based businesses, like the custom embroidery and clothing shop and the quilt shop, seem to do well. Heart Butte once had a sewing co-op that completed contracts for custom sewing (through a job broker back east) -- things like filters for the air system in tanks. It failed because the workers couldn’t cope with the fluctuations in the size of the contracts, but maybe Valier could.

The flower nursery is a success and relatively new.

The Gallery/website business of Jack Smith has developed well, but arts in general as business is undeveloped. (Small inexpensive houses invite artists.) The connection with Ivan Doig has never been exploited by identifying this town as one of his sources and the location of his high school education.

The eBay-dependent antiques business did well until the owner became ill. Rumor has it that eBay may change drastically in the next few years, which might help or hinder.
I’m not aware of a bookkeeping business. Likewise insurance. Other clerical services such as transcription (medical or otherwise), printing, database maintenance, indexing are not present. I’m told there’s a woman who proofs textbooks and I myself write. Others write grants. I reflect about a custom bookbinding but so far don't know enough.

The several “beauty parlors” have absorbed the male barber business. One value-added business offers massage.

Prairie Star, reborn as Trader’s Dispatch, has been steady and strong.
The real estate business is subject to the larger economy, which is rough right now, but recently there was a bit of a boom which was much facilitated by online entrepreneurs who find Valier and see it as good place for “flipping.”

Kenny, our long-time grass cutter, is aging out, but Joe has moved to town and begun a service.

Rick the handyman has moved on. In general, it’s hard to find people to do small technical tasks like rewiring a switch or repairing a leak.

A new AC company has moved to town.

John Padgett does house painting.

Swank/DeVoe is the premier model for a business that has over the years grown from a little hardware store to a major contractor.

There is no computer or tech support person in town.

Housing

Employees for homeland security, the prison, the border, the sheriff like to live in Valier as a quiet environment for their families.

Transient labor for big projects like the wind farm, the high transmission line, pipelines and so on, seek apartments or small houses here.

There is one low-cost apartment housing unit built and the Section 8 program is active. People at the growth meeting indicated a need for something that would sustain older people so they don’t have to move to Conrad.

A storage facility has just expanded.

Housing supplies seem to include a range: small, old houses that invite low income people; modern and roomy homes suitable for families with children and income; a few unique homes designed specifically for individuals; modular homes built and moved in to permanent foundations; trailers of various sorts. Many houses stand empty a lot because they are vacation residences. Lately there have been quite a few totally new houses. Some properties become legally frozen for a while because the owners are in institutions or deceased or ownership is somehow disputed. They tend to deteriorate.
One individual, Bowman, has remodeled a number of houses to the point of totally renewing them, moving a few into town from the country. This includes the Stone School House. He has moved away and is selling the last of his properties. He has in the past been active as “Bootlegger Realty,” dealing in more modest properties. The present real estate person does not live in the town.
The park on the main street is a major improvement but the old bank/post office is still a blot, as is the potentially cute little house that once housed a tourist business. I’m told that one person owns these two buildings plus a substantial but deserted house away from the highway. Do we know what goes on with this property owner? Are the contingencies his or ours?


Recreation

Highway 44 is known as the “cut-across” and was once promoted as the fastest and safest route to Great Falls from Browning, where Marias Pass and Canadian traffic enter the area. The signs put up then are pretty shabby now, though 89 is still a twisty, narrow road most of the way. Part of the success of the Panther is that it was halfway along 44, well-placed for taking a coffee break in rough weather. When 44 was being rebuilt, people got out of the habit of traveling it. We need to encourage return to the route now that competing highway 2 to Cut Bank is much improved and also a cut-across to the Interstate.

The irrigation impoundment fondly known as Lake Francis is the key to a campground, ice fishing in winter and small boat fishing in summer, and wind-related activities like wind-surfing. It also provides a nesting island in wet years. There is no exclusively fishing supply shop. The fish organizations contribute such amenities as the fish-cleaning station.

The Firemen’s Pavilion is a good facility for large group events and might be developed further.

Stone School Bed and Breakfast appears to be a viable business but doesn’t interact with the community so much as it did.


What seems clear is that many successful businesses come from the vision or aptitude of individuals who see a “niche” and develop it. Also, there are two competing currents: those who would like to see the town become much bigger and those who would like to see the town stay small but more orderly and prosperous. Little attention is given to world or regional influences.

Valier is too nervous about the relationship with the reservation to talk about it.

Only a few people are participating in the discussion of the future.

Quite a bit of growth has been happening in the past few years, enough to make the infrastructure groan a bit.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Community size doesn't always correlate with infrastructure. I live in a town of 20,000+, located in a densely populated section of a county with a population of 1.3 million, yet there are no sewers (we have to use cesspools) and very limited natural gas service (most people heat with $5/gallon heating oil). Even the electric supply grid is strained to its limits.