Boom or bust?

Office of Economic Opportunity under microscope



Gov. Judy Martz’ pet project, one she considers her greatest accomplishment in office, should either be significantly overhauled or scrapped altogether.

That’s the conclusion of a legislative audit conducted this month of the Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, an office its outgoing director says has created 1,000 jobs since its creation three years ago, but one also plagued with high staff turnover, budget cuts and an unclear focus.

The office was created to bring together all the agencies and individuals involved in boosting economic development in Montana and have them work toward that common goal. That said, the audit was conducted, in part, because state policy makers were unclear about the purpose of the office and the overall economic development structure in Montana. State auditors noted that when it comes to economic development schemes, Montana has been stuck in a “perpetual planning mode” for the past 30 years, and that the current structure fails to provide opportunities to break free from that mode. Continuing along the same path, the audit says, will continue to waste time and resources. “In these circumstances,” according to the audit, “eliminating the office may be preferable to continuing to devote resources to activities with limited benefits.”

The office is unique, says state legislative auditor Scott Seacat, because the governor appoints its staffers and because it falls under the executive branch of government. “They’re appointed by the governor and our governor is heading out the door,” Seacat says. But the office is also part of a three-decade job-boosting effort that changes with each administration. “Nobody ever goes back and says, ‘what did we accomplish?’” Seacat says.

David Gibson, the outgoing director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, defends his accomplishments, pointing to 1,000 newly created jobs during his tenure, but also agrees with some of the audit’s findings and recommendations. Long-term economic development, he says, “takes five, six or 20 years. There’s nothing you can do overnight.” Yet in three years, he says, his office brought to the state a Medicaid management agency called Centene that provided 300 jobs in Great Falls; Bresnan Communications, which recently bought out AT&T, built its regional headquarters in Billings, providing 150 to 200 new jobs; a malt plant in Great Falls is nearly complete and is expected to provide about 25 jobs—and, more importantly, will buy and process 15 million bushels of malt barley from state and regional growers. And the office claims responsibility for getting the MRI copper mine up and running again in Butte.

“I can lay claim to helping create 1,000 jobs and I feel really good about that,” Gibson says. “But the really big thing to do is get us out of 50th place in wages with things like workforce training. If you don’t do these things, you’re not competitive.”

Gibson agrees with the audit in that continuity of programs and staffing are problems that need fixing. “If you’re not going to fix the structural issues around continuity maybe you should consider eliminating it.”

His office staff, down to two from a maximum of six, lost steam when they learned about a year and a half ago that Martz would not seek a second term. “When you work at the pleasure of the governor and the governor doesn’t want to run, I’m not sure there’s anything that can be done,” Gibson says.

What can be done is to build on the foundation already laid, says Evan Barrett, head of the Butte Local Development Corps., and Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer’s choice to replace Gibson, who was recently tapped to fill a new economic development position in the state’s university system. Though the Legislature ultimately will decide if and how to fund the Office of Economic Opportunity, Barrett says, “I don’t think anyone has an interest in eliminating it. I think that’s more of a rhetorical statement.”

Like Gibson, Barrett agrees with many of the auditors’ recommendations to strengthen the office by restructuring some of its elements. But, he warns, “You can also perpetually restructure and as long as people are tinkering with structure and changing the nature of operations, it’s just an avoidance of getting things done. It’s time to stop tinkering and get out there and get some economic development done.”

Barrett’s plan to get things done, he says, are Schweitzer’s plans, and Schweitzer’s plans are project-specific. “The state will assist local economic development organizations to be more fruitful and put the weight and prestige of the governor behind projects to make them happen,” he says.

And what types of job-creation projects do Schweitzer and Barrett have in mind? Specifically, Schweitzer wants to focus on value-added agriculture, improved technology, creating jobs on Indian reservations and Montana’s old economic standby: natural resource development. “The governor would like to do appropriate—and I think that’s the key word, ‘appropriate’—natural resource development,” Barrett says, noting that natural resource jobs make up only 5 percent of the state’s economy.

“There isn’t one economy in Montana,” he adds. “There are multiple economies. What is a growth opportunity in Missoula may not be a growth opportunity in Wolf Point. If we’re going to eliminate poverty in this state, if we’re going to raise wages in this state, we can’t just work at the top of the economic ladder, we’ve got to work at the bottom of the economic ladder. We want to hit the ground running and be aggressive.”

Sarah Elliott, spokeswoman for the Schweitzer transition team, says Schweitzer is aware of the audit and is committed to the office and its success. Like Schweitzer, she doesn’t mince words: “The governor-elect expects our economic development team will deliver, or he’ll find someone who can.”


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