By Michael Howell
The Ravalli County Commissioners, in an emotional meeting last week with representatives of the Bitter Root Economic Development District (BREDD), explained their reasons for withdrawing from the district. In short, according to Commission Chair Suzy Foss, it boils down to the fact that Ravalli County taxpayers are not getting the bang for their bucks in terms of strategic economic planning.
The commission sent a letter to BREDD in June stating their dissatisfaction. They stated that the economic planning efforts of BREDD mirror Missoula County’s needs but don’t address Ravalli County’s needs which are different. They asked BREDD to consider passing on 30% of the $50,000 in federal funds it gets for regional planning directly to Ravalli County so that a strategy could be developed that was more appropriate for this county.
BREDD’s response came on September 19, one day after the Commissioners decided to withdraw from the district. In the letter BREDD states that Economic Development Administration officials informed them that the planning grant funds could not be distributed to county level organizations.
As an alternative BREDD suggested that Ravalli County join in completing the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the region. Without a CEDS the county would be ineligible for EDA and other state funding. In the past it has helped fund projects like the Stevensville Sewer Project. The CEDS addresses the priorities, needs, goals and objectives of the individual communities and the overall region.
The second suggestion was for the county to jointly apply with Missoula County to become a Certified Regional Development Corporation (CRDC). That would open the way to apply for a $40,000 grant through the Department of Commerce for regional capacity building in both counties. They gave the county three days to state its intentions in writing.
In a letter written the next day, Commission Chair Suzy Foss and RCEDA Director Julie Foster told BREDD that the suggestion to apply for CRDS money “isn’t an honest avenue” for them to take.
“There are longstanding communication and integrity issues that can’t be solved spending an additional $40,000,” the letter states.
As far as the need for a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, Foss and Foster both point to an economic needs analysis done in 2006 by economic and community planning expert Larry Swanson, Director of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West. They urged BREDD to consider using such a professional for creating the planning document rather than trying to do it in-house as is BREDD’s plan. They reject the offer by BREDD to forward 30% of the $2,000 it has set aside for contractual work on the document.
BREDD officials claim that while Ravalli County officials complain about the current CEDS not meeting their specific needs, at the same time they have never made those needs clear. They state that Ravalli County has not been collaborating.
Ravalli County officials claim the opposite. They claim that they have participated for too long with their input being basically ignored.
Foster said that this is not the end of any cooperation with BREDD or with Missoula County. She said the county is committed to working with the many Missoula based economic development organizations, including BREDD. But as far as being a part of a regional group, the county is contemplating joining with the Headwaters regional district which includes Granite, Powell and Deerlodge counties. According to Foster, Ravalli County might be a better fit with those more rural counties than with the BREDD which includes Missoula and Mineral counties, but seems to be dominated by Missoula’s more urban interests.