COMMUNITY CONVERSATION BY DILLON TABISHn the last decade, the valley has faced the challenges and opportunities associated with rapid growth, the devastating impact of the economic recession and the resurgent momentum of recovery.
Through thick and thin, Montana West Economic Development has played a large role in the entrepreneurial progress that has been made in the last 17 years, alongside an adjacent organization with a similar purpose named the Flathead County Economic Development Authority.
As a not-for-profit economic development organization, MWED has worked to stimulate a diversified, sustainable business base through loan and grant programs, consulting, market analyses and regional marketing campaigns.
In recent years, MWED has dished out roughly $4.4 million through a revolving loan fund, helping local businesses make improvements or expand.
Recently the organization hosted the inaugural Glacier Startup Weekend, a three-day event devoted to sparking entrepreneurialism in the local job market.
Also, this fall, the U.S. Department of Transportation will announce the winner of a highly sought-after grant that could spur the development of an industrial rail park in Kalispell that MWED and FCEDA have worked to create for years.
Kellie Danielson has served as president and CEO of both organizations since 2009. Flathead Living magazine caught up with the valley’s economic ambassador in August:
Flathead Living: How did you end up in the Flathead Valley? What initially attracted you here?
Kellie Danielson: I had heard about the Flathead from two residents and it sounded appealing. I vacationed here twice and was hooked. I relocated from Chicago, where I had lived for 10 years. My son at the time was in preschool and I knew I would not raise him in Chicago. My goal was to locate a safe place where “doing the right thing” was still important. I was fascinated with the northwest part of Montana. I have always had horses in my life and I had this huge interest in learning to downhill ski. When I moved to the Flathead, I immediately learned to ski. I appreciate the clear water in the streams and lakes.
FL: What are some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome at MWED and FCEDA?
Danielson: When MWED and FCEDA were established, they had a big impact on the area. There was a ton of local business support. I came on board in 2009, when the economy tanked. The challenges were staring us in the face — how does the delivery of economic development services react in a recession when little business investment occurs? The board of directors and the staff accessed resources from various entities and went to work with an outreach to established companies asking how we can assist with retaining employees or maintaining their business. We aggressively consulted with as many companies and individuals as we could to inform them of the economic development resources we had tapped into for business. Beginning in 2010, our consultations increase every year as well as the amount of resources delivered. Our memberships are consistent, and the boards of directors are extremely supportive.
FL: When you’re meeting with prospective businesses about relocating or starting up here, what are some of the selling points you emphasize?
Danielson: The lifestyle is the main attraction tool. Established companies relocate when they have a customer to serve or a major market to serve. When one thinks about the larger employers established in the Flathead, the majority are start-up companies. Therefore, the priority focus is on providing services/resources to assist business form, launch and expand versus funneling resources towards external business attraction. We do build relationships with individuals externally who are interested in the area as a business location one day. We educate about the advantages of doing business here and provide details on the cost of doing business. Depending on the project, we tap into the local CEO network to reach out to interested people or companies — they are our best sales people.
FL: What are some of the main benefits of living and working in the Flathead that attract people?
Danielson: The abundance of four season outdoor recreational opportunities, the safety of the area for living and working, the strong work ethic and values of the workforce are testimonials we hear from people who are drawn to the area. Often we hear from newcomers that the residents in the Flathead are the most genuine people they have come across. I have to agree.