Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Main Street Montana Project entourage stop by Pablo

Char-Koosta News 

PABLO — Montana Lt. Governor Mike Cooney and various state economic development folks visited with the Tribal Council and administrative staff recently to listen to their economic development concerns during a Main Street Montana Project tour. Cooney said the community/reservation tours are ongoing and he and staffers will visit all tribal nations and numerous communities to listen to the concerns about the economy and how the state government might be of assistance through its various programs.

“I am here today to hear about your priorities,” Cooney said. “We are not here to tell you what to do.”

The Tribal Council had a 14-point wish list but time constraints limited the discussion to a handful of the concerns.

The potential development of the former tribal hot springs spa in Hot Springs was the first topic of discussion.

Tara Rice, Director of the Montana Department of Commerce, told the Tribal Council and folks in attendance that the department serves as a matchmaker role that could help facilitate a meeting of minds on the potential of development of the hot springs facility. 

“People say the capacity to access resources in rural areas and Indian reservations is lacking. Addressing that is a big priority for the Department of Commerce. Later this year we will be bringing communities and investors together to address the economy,” Rice said. “We will get in touch with you.”

Responding to a query about hemp cultivation and food sovereignty, Cooney said he would contact the Department of Agriculture and arrange a discussion about on the issues.

“We will follow up on this. We won’t keep you waiting,” Cooney said. “We will schedule a meeting here with the Department of Agriculture. They could discuss the development of the hemp industry. The state is developing rules on hemp cultivation.”

Elmo District Tribal Council Rep. Len TwoTeeth said he would like assistance with getting forest products to market and removal of the Montana Rail Link boxcars that have been sitting idly on the spur tracks near the former Dixon Agency for approximately four years.

Cooney agreed that the stored boxcars are an eyesore. “We will certainly find out who’s responsible for the boxcars and get back to you,” he said, adding that idle railroad boxcars have been a common sight over the last few years throughout many sections of rail lines in Montana. “They are a common sight from Great Falls to Havre.”

“We need assistance determining what forest products are a good sell, what markets are available and help getting forest products to the markets,” TwoTeeth said. “If you can assist us, great.”

“There are a lot of problems in the lumber market,” Cooney said alluding to the subsidized timber industry in Canada. “We can reach out to the lumber markets and help establish a connection for what they’re buying.”

Dixon District Tribal Council Rep. Anita Matt asked about assistance in the development of broadband infrastructure that links individual properties to the main trunk line. “The last mile to link households is very expensive,” she said, adding that Indian reservations and rural communities were identified as broadband underserved areas. 

Jason Smith, Director of the Governors Office of Indian Affairs, said the Indian Nations in Montana have access to the Montana Board of Investments program. “There are loans that tribes have access to,” he said. “It’s another finance tool for tribes to work with, they can utilize for infrastructure development.”

Cooney said he would contact the Board of Investments and have representatives contact the CSKT.

“We need economic development direction but we get high-centered when we try to define our needs,” said Hot Springs District Tribal Council Rep. Leonard Grey.

“Look at other places that are successful and [learn] from them. There is no reason for you to feel that you have to reinvent the wheel,” Cooney said. “We can also get people to work with you, help you connect,” 

Tribal Council Chair Ronald Trahan said state entrepreneur funds have worked well for the Flathead Reservation tribal businesses. State Indian equity funds are available to Indian Nations for tribal business development. “We do good but we need to do better,” he said.

Cooney said a big issue in economic development or in the state’s economy in general is pay. “The big issue is workforce issue pay,” he said. “Pay is not the highest in the world.”

Cooney said the CSKT have a big key in addressing pay issues, Salish Kootenai College. A college degree can improve wages but for those not interested in college should seek technical education or apprenticeship opportunities.

Arlee District Tribal Council Rep. Shelly Fyant said the CSKT have one of the avenues to workforce training, Kicking Horse Job Corps has been closed by the Department of Labor under the direction of the Trump Administration. The proposed closures of the Anaconda and Trapper Creek Job Corps centers were short lived after local and state objections held sway. However, the KHJC center seems to be history.

Cooney encouraged the CSKT tribal people to be counted in the 2020 census. “When we undercount, we lose $2,000 per person per year,” he said. “It’s really important to get a good count. That could be a problem in Indian Country because many have post office boxes as addresses instead of street addresses.”

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