Comprehensive economic plans needed

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This editorial is from the Butte Weekly's opinion pages. It stands as the "opinion of the paper."

2-12-14

                Recent business closures and layoffs have prompted the usual chicken-little, “Sky is falling” talk and the bromides that a big-box store or more franchise restaurants will be the panacea for all of Butte’s economic woes.

                These assertions are false; what is needed is a better big-picture viewpoint to address ways to improve Butte’s overall economy and concerted local efforts that focus on doable steps to help that process that address a broader range of businesses and industry and encourage growth throughout them all, from small manufacturers and mom-and-pop stores to larger enterprises.

                We’ve heard for years that Butte is dying and that any day, the streets will be rolled up and everyone will move to greener pastures elsewhere.  We heard it in the old days during every union strike against the mining companies, we heard it when the Berkeley Pit ceased operations and we’ve heard it every time a retailer or restaurant has closed its doors.  Somehow, reports of Butte’s death, like that of Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. 

                The town has shifted in many ways with time.  Although Butte still depends heavily on the mining industry, mining is no longer the only game in town.  Our population has been steadily declining for many years, but new census figures show that it has stabilized and even increased a bit.  Many residents and businesses have moved off the hill and the town has spread to the south and east, but redevelopment and reuse of historic Uptown buildings continues.  In recent years, more historic properties have been redeveloped for residential use, prompted by renewed interest from those who want to live in the central business district. 

                Butte has always endured its ups and downs, but it continues to survive and there are many bright signs that point to diverse economic growth that should be stronger over the long-haul than our previous dependence on a single industry. 

                Efforts like that underway to locate a major manufacturing hub, one of 8 nationwide, to bring together educational institutions and industry in research and development, hold promise.  The start of a pilot “Economic Gardening” program to help local businesses grow, thus supporting economic growth from within, is a positive step.  Our Chief Executive’s participation in national conversations about urban planning and development of plans to improve the corridor between Montana Tech and the Uptown business district signal promise.  With the completion of its high-speed fiber optic network, Butte is poised to attract more high-tech businesses and industries.

                Efforts to woo a big-box retailer to the Mining City seem even more likely to fail than they did in the 1990s.  Nationally, big retailers are not building as many brick-and-mortar outlets, partly due to changes in American shopping habits, such as the dramatic rise in internet sales in the past few years.  Companies like Home Depot, Lowes and Target seem unlikely to build in Butte, especially since their stores in other communities 60 to 90 miles away already draw customers from Butte and is surrounding area. 

                Even if Butte could land a big-box store, study after study has shown that economically, it would hurt locally owned competitors in the market and shuttle more local dollars out of the community. 

                Rather than putting all our focus on attracting “one big thing,” we need to continue to work steadily in multiple areas to improve our economy.  We need to steer clear of the old “flat versus Uptown” thinking that divides the community instead of uniting us. 

                A realistic approach, based on solid knowledge about business and industrial trends nationwide and statewide, is key to crafting future plans for economic development.  Our leaders need to be as aware of Butte’s weaknesses as well as its strengths in order to move forward.  We need multiple strategies to provide more value in the community that will attract new businesses and industries.  Our eyes need to be open to all new possibilities and to all avenues for growth. 

                We have to realize that great victories come from fighting many battles on many fronts.  We need to move forward one step at a time and pick ourselves up from setbacks, not let them defeat us.  Change is difficult, but the truth is that Butte can and will survive and thrive if we can work together and not be tempted to fall for the false prophets of gloom and doom.