Lethbridge connections: City could be business gateway to Canada

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A small contingent from the Flathead Valley traveled to Lethbridge, Alberta, earlier this month to begin the process of forging business ties that go beyond luring Canadian shoppers and skiers to Northwest Montana.

“I’ve got nothing against bringing Canadians here for vacation or buying houses, but our goal at MWED is more about trade and business,” Kim Morisaki, manager of business development and special projects for Montana West Economic Development, said.

Morisaki and Flathead County Economic Development Authority board members Turner Askew and Gary Hall went to Lethbridge to visit with people in economic development in Lethbridge and sow the seeds for future business-to-business relationships.

“There’s a huge market in Canada,” Askew said. “Our vision stops at the border, and I’m not sure their vision stops at the border. If nothing else, then maybe we can learn from them about that.”

The Lethbridge area has about 100,000 people. The demographics are somewhat opposite the Flathead Valley’s, with most of its population — about 90,000 — living within the city limits. An industrial center of southern Alberta, Lethbridge is Alberta’s fourth-largest city, and offers both a university and two college campuses.

“We have a lot in common,” Askew said. “We’re both so close to the border and there’s some cross-border trade. If there’s a way to simplify that trade or make it more profitable ... We don’t know where this is going, but the fact that we’re talking is wonderful.”

Askew noted that Lethbridge faces an ongoing challenge of workers leaving town for lucrative jobs in the Canadian oil fields to the north, just as the Flathead Valley sees people leave for the Bakken oil fields in eastern Montana and North Dakota.

Morisaki said it’s likely that skilled workers from the Flathead Valley looking for construction-type jobs would prefer traveling four hours to Lethbridge rather than commuting to North Dakota.

“They do need people who are in building or other trades, as so many people in Lethbridge go to the oil sands for work, which leaves them shorthanded for other things,” she said.

The prospect of creating a way to make it easier for Americans to work in Lethbridge is part of the reason for furthering Canadian connections, Morisaki said. She would also like to see more economic relationship-building between the two areas.

Morisaki lived in Japan for 11 years and learned as an entrepreneur there how much opportunity can be created for both parties if two cultures make the effort to get to know more about each other.

“I always think that when you go to another place and learn about them, with fresh eyes you can see opportunities that people from there can’t see,” she said. “People think that Canada is not so different, but there are some things that are different. They have a different set of preconceived notions about how things are.”

Morisaki said that one difference is how well-acquainted Lethbridge residents are with the Flathead Valley compared to the reverse.

“Talking with them feels like talking to Montanans, they know our area so well,” she said. “So many of them come here to golf at Meadow Lake or ski in Whitefish or have second homes here. People like to come here because of the mountains and lakes and fresh water. Those aren’t geographical features in Lethbridge.”

The Flathead Valley has a good “in” with Lethbridge through the president of the city’s Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Galts. Galts is also with Galko Homes, a construction firm that has a U.S. division based in Whitefish — Galko Homes Montana.

Galts extended the invitation for the group to visit Lethbridge, but the trio also went to visit Transmark, a private rail siding off of a Canadian Pacific Railroad mainline.

“The fact that they’re private and run by one company makes them not so similar,” Morisaki said, comparing the Canadian rail siding to the planned Flathead County Rail Park. “But it was helpful to see what they’ve done with the same size space, to talk numbers and see what kind of businesses are using rail.”

The Flathead County Rail Park, planned at the McElroy & Wilken gravel pit on 40 acres east of Whitefish Stage Road, plays a big role in plans to redevelop Kalispell’s railroad corridor. The facility would provide a site for new businesses that need railroad access to locate and possibly allow the last two Kalispell businesses that use the railroad to relocate there. That would allow the city to remove the spur of railroad tracks that split the city and free a large and languishing area for redevelopment.

A federal grant request for $8.7 million was recently turned down, but development of the Flathead County Rail Park is anticipated to continue, only at a slower pace than would otherwise be possible.

Hall, a former Flathead County commissioner, was interested in touring the Transmark rail park and was very impressed with the operation, which has been heavily involved in developing Alberta’s wind energy projects.

“But the main thing I came away with was not being able to see a successful industrial park, but realizing we [the Flathead Valley and Lethbridge] have a lot in common,” he said. “We’re of a similar size with like-minded county development. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of commonality, and looking forward to further dialogue.”

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