Montana chamber presents business agenda

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Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, presents Democratic legislator Rep. Dave Fern with the state chamber’s “Champion of Business” award Thursday morning at the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce office. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

The Montana Chamber of Commerce is touring the state to promote its strategic plan for the next decade.

Representatives from the Montana Chamber made a stop in Whitefish last week to meet with Whitefish business owners, officials and members of the board of directors for the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce. About a dozen folks attended the meeting at the Whitefish chamber’s office.

The state chamber’s Envision 2026 plan aims to “create and sustain an optimal business climate, business prosperity and a strong Montana economy.”

Chamber President and CEO Webb Brown presented the organization’s strategic plan noting that prior to creating the plan the chamber tended to focus on a two-year plan based on the biennial state Legislature.

“We decided we should be setting the agenda and saying, ‘Legislators, you should be implementing out plan,’” he said. “The business community is important to Montana.”

The plan focuses on four key areas — workforce development, business climate, infrastructure investment and entrepreneurship.

“We primarily do advocacy — trying to represent business and improve the economy for all of us,” Brown said of the state chamber.

He touched on a few areas of the plan — one of its goals is to increase the per capita income for Montana and maintain the state’s top 10 ranking in rate of new business start-ups.

Brown says raising the per capita income does mean raising wages, but if that can increase productivity than the chamber is behind it.

“We want everyone to be earning more,” he said.

Brown says Montana has an “entrepreneurial spirit” that has lead to its ranking as No. 1 and more recently No. 4 for new businesses.

“We are going to look at what gets us back up to that point [of No. 1],” he said. “We already have that entrepreneurial spirit and what can we do to maintain that. We’re middle of the pack for sustainability of those start-ups. What can we do to change and keep those start-ups.”

During the meeting, Brown also presented the chamber’s “Champion of Business” award to Democrat legislator Rep. Dave Fern, who was the only Flathead Valley lawmaker among the 10 “champions” statewide honored by the organization.

The award is part of the chamber’s 2017 voting review for the 65th regular session of the Montana Legislature. The review scores 25 floor votes in the Montana Senate and 25 floor votes in the Montana House. Between these floor votes, committee votes, and bill sponsor recognition, the review scores 75 bills in all.

Brown said the chamber picks out a few folks that they think are doing a great job and Fern is among that list.

“He was fantastic to work with,” Brown said. “We appreciate everything he did — whether it was infrastructure or other bills.”

Fern said he did his best to work with folks “on both sides of the isle” and organizations like the Montana chamber.

“I appreciate your support on a bill to expand the resort tax,” Fern said. “We lost in a bipartisan fashion and that’s OK.”

Efforts to allow for an increase in the resort tax to provide for affordable workforce housing or to let towns create a similar tax to pay for infrastructure needs was shot down in the state Legislature this spring.

Fern said hopefully the Legislature will try again.

Brown said the state chamber remains neutral in its position on an expansion of the resort tax, but thinks a general sales tax would be a better option. However, he said, the chamber supports that tax for infrastructure and supported of the 4.5 cent per gallon increase in the state’s gas tax approved by the Legislature to pay for highway construction projects.

“The infrastructure gas tax is about safety, keeping our roads and bridges safe,” he said. “Our visitors are also helping contribute to our infrastructure.”

The meeting was opened up to input from those in attendance for sharing their concerns for business in the state.

Kevin Gartland, executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, said the focus in Whitefish is on creating affordable workforce housing for employees.

“That’s all encompassing right now,” Gartland said.

He also added that the chamber is interested in regulations for short term rentals or laws that would allow city governments to regulate those rentals.

On workforce housing, Brown said the state chamber remains “split” on the issue of resort tax helping to fund housing projects.

“We have some folks who say they are stepping up and taking care of their [employees] and yet this would help subsidize the competition who isn’t providing workforce housing,” he said. “There is still a bit of controversy over that.”

On short-term or vacation rentals, Brown said, the issue should be dealt with at the local level in terms of regulation. Those Airbnb-style rentals should have to pay the state bed tax just as any lodging establishment would, he said, but pointed out that a bill ensuring that the 4 percent tax is collected was killed by the Department of Revenue saying it already had such authority.

Another area that came up for discussion was workforce training.

Webb said the state chamber is looking to facilitate a dialogue between Montana business and education communities.

“We need to be working on the pipeline for the future [workforce],” he said.

Tony Veseth, chairman of the chamber board, said pairing businesses with Flathead Valley Community College to create mentorship programs for new business owners or creating vocational technology programs could be beneficial.

“A lot of people come here for the lifestyle choice and then have to figure out what they’re going to do once they get here,” Veseth said. “We start businesses to have a way to live here.”

Veseth, a Farm Bureau Financial Services agent, said he would like to see business owners paired with college students to provide quality employees.

Don Kaltschmidt, a chamber board director and owner of the Don K car dealership, said his industry could use trained employees.

“It takes a lot of skills to be an auto technician,” he said.

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