Industrial expansion is a bright sign for Great Falls economy

By December 22, 2015News

December 20, 2015 6:00 pm • JAYME FRASER Lee Newspapers State Bureau

Several ongoing company expansions in Great Falls could herald the end of a 30-year dry spell for industrial growth, area leaders say.

Despite its prime location along transportation corridors, companies looking to expand or relocate to the Golden Triangle could not find many heavy industrial lots and none with rail access.

“We didn’t have any on the market for several decades,” said Jolene Bach, vice president of the Great Falls Development Authority.

The last industrial park built in Great Falls came online and quickly filled up in the 1980s. Local leaders had discussed developing new rail-served lots as early as the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2010 that the authority signed an option contract for more than 1,000 acres in northeast Great Falls. The area, dubbed the AgriTech Park, will be developed in phases, beginning with 196 acres divided into 10 lots.

“Pretty much as soon as they became available they sold,” Bach said, noting five lots were claimed quickly and a sixth has recently come under agreement. “It confirmed there was pent-up demand.”

Bach said the first 10 AgriTech Park lots — and all the zoning and infrastructure work required — were spurred to completion, in part, by the possibility of losing Pacific Steel and Recycling. The regional company with headquarters in Great Falls had outgrown its riverside recycling facility and was looking to expand — even if that meant leaving town.

Instead, Pacific Steel and Montana Specialty Mills agreed to pay some of the costs to extend a rail spur and other utilities into the AgriTech Park, work which is underway this winter. Bach said the companies will be reimbursed, plus interest, with tax increment funds accrued from the park.

Around the same time as the AgriTech Park gained steam, nearby land in the north industrial area started to sell as the economy warmed up. ADF International and Loenbro both opened new fabrication facilities in the area this year.

ADF International General Manager Dan Rooney suspected that the same market characteristics that brought their company to Great Falls could entice other manufacturers.

“Great Falls happened to be the largest metro area south of the Canadian border and was very near a high-and-wide corridor that was already established,” Rooney said, referring to a federally designated transportation corridor for oversized shipments. “Because our oil field modules are 24-feet wide and 24-feet tall, you have to have a clear route for them.”

Despite the oil drilling slowdown, Rooney said his company still expects to grow the number of jobs in Great Falls during the next year, noting that they have shifted fabrication to serve other industries.

Joe Aline of Shumaker Trucking and Excavating Contractors said the northeast corner of Great Falls is a natural area for industrial growth given the lack of residential development that could create tensions with operators. Aline, who sold some of the lots under development and has done site work for the companies moving in, expects building to continue at a steady pace now that the city has shovel-ready lots available.

“It’ll start to build on itself now that we have several of these industrial manufacturers here,” he said. “We haven’t seen that type of growth here since the smelter growth back in the 1980s. It’s great, instead of call centers, to get industrial, hands-on-type jobs that tend to pay more.”

State labor statistics show that the total value of annual wages paid in Cascade County has grown 6.8 percent since 2010 to $4.6 billion even as the number of people employed has remained almost flat.

Area leaders attribute the wage growth to the higher-paying industrial jobs added to the market, but also to increased hiring competition. After peaking above 6 percent in 2011, unemployment in Cascade County fell to 3.5 percent in September, the lowest it’s been since 2007.

“With all these employers competing for workers, it’s a challenge to fill openings,” said Brad Talcott of James Talcott Construction, who worked on several industrial construction projects in recent years. “But it’s a good thing. It’s an exciting time.”

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Great Falls, Louisiana Purchase, Missouri River, Recycling, Adf International, James Talcott, Cascade County, Dan Rooney, Great Falls Development Authority, Transportation Corridors, Designated Transportation Corridor, Brad Talcott, Joe Aline, Oil Field Modules, Oil Drilling Slowdown, Steel, General Manager, Vice President, Golden Triangle, Jolene Bach