In 2018, I have had the opportunity to travel to 10 different counties in Montana to be a part of various MSU Extension programming. I not only enjoy the opportunity to share my knowledge with Montanans but also to learn from the participants in these programs. The participants I get to meet have an incredible range of business models, economic outlooks, skill sets, educational backgrounds, and life experiences.
I often ask participants how they view their local economy (any new businesses, any recent closures, etc.), how their local school enrollment is doing and what they expect the outlook for their business to be in next year. I tend to get answers like agricultural prices haven’t been great recently, the drought last year was tough, a few businesses (but not many) have closed over the past five years, the enrollment at the school is lot smaller than when I attended (this seems to be true regardless of the age of the respondent) and also that the outlook for this year is better than last year. School enrollment declines and cooperative sports teams seem to the norm in many smaller communities.
In the Gallatin Valley, the talk tends to be a bit different. Growth is a major factor in almost any decision. Many of the school districts in the Gallatin Valley (Bozeman, Monforton, Belgrade, Manhattan, Amsterdam and Three Forks) have recently built additional schools or expanded their facilities. Bozeman is building a second AA high school and Belgrade High School will move up to AA in 2020. Infrastructure (roads, sewer, courts, schools, housing, parking, etc.) is constantly in need of costly expansions and upgrades to handle the growth and serve the current residents.
The US Census Bureau recently released their July 1, 2017 population estimates for all U.S. counties. Montana’s growth rate for 2016 to 2017 was 0.73% (or about 7,500 people) is about 0.20% less than in recent years. 39 counties experienced population growth while 17 did not. Only 3 of the 10 counties I visited this spring experienced growth (a combined 81 people). The other seven counties lost an estimated 569 people. Montana’s growth has been above the US growth rate in recent years. Montana may receive a second seat in the US House of Representatives in 2022 (based on the 2020 census). A second seat isn’t a sure thing but some population projections allocate Montana an extra seat while others project Montana will have the largest population represented by a single house seat (basically finishing 436th in a race to be in the top 435).
Population growth seems to be a bit of a Goldilocks issue. In some places the porridge (growth) is too hot and brings with it a whole host of challenges. While in other parts of the state the porridge is definitely too cold which brings a different set of issues. Montana as a whole may have found the Goldilocks growth rate but individual communities are still searching for that porridge that is not too hot and not too cold.