Time to address the decline of Montana’s rural areas

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hay fields in river bottom along missouri river near fort benton, montana (highwood mountains in distance)

It’s often said that Montana is like a small town with long streets. Montanans may be separated by hundreds of miles but it’s amazing how many mutual friends you find you have after talking with someone for five minutes in this giant small town.

A defining characteristic of small towns is that people care about one another and rally together in challenging times. Chances are you’ve attended at least a few community benefits to raise money for medical bills or to help a family that had some other misfortune strike.

Today, our giant small town of Montana is facing a threat to the continued existence of many members of our small town, unless we rally together and begin to turn things around.

Forty-four of Montana’s 56 counties are slowly losing their life-blood — the youth who go away to college or trade school and don’t return. Many wish they could come back to the communities and way of life they love, but after getting established in Montana’s booming counties, or out of state, the only time they may come home is for a class reunion, holiday, wedding or funeral.

Montana’s seven most populated areas, from Kalispell to Billings, are growing by leaps and bounds. Montana’s 12 biggest counties have grown by roughly 49 percent since 1980. In their shadow, Montana’s 44 other counties have barely increased half a percentage point over the same period of time, being left behind.

Store fronts on main streets sit empty with signs of “for sale” or “for rent.” Schools fall from Class A to B, or B to C, and in more dire cases are forced to consolidate, fighting to stay alive.

I have visited with business owners, community leaders and fellow young professionals about the struggles rural areas are facing to recruit and retain the qualified workforce needed to reverse the trends and ignite economic development. We’re all worried that without immediate action, in 15-20 years we will be a state with seven thriving urban areas and 44 ghost counties.

This is why I have introduced a bipartisan solution to give rural areas a tool to begin to reverse the downward trend. It is called the Catch and Keep Montana’s Treasure Act.

In exchange for a five year commitment, this legislation will provide hundreds of small grants directly to skilled or educated young people as an incentive for them to return to rural communities and establish their lives and families there.

Grants could be used to buy a home, start a business, pay off student debt, relocate or any way an awardee sees fit to give them a leg up on starting life in the area they love.

In combination with tax credits for property taxes, the program would require local and private capital matches in counties who elect to participate.

Kansas, which has had a similar incentive program in place since 2011 to revitalize their rural areas, reports a return to their economy of roughly $6 for every $1 invested in the program.

Montana is at a crossroads. Without action, the decline of our rural areas will snowball until communities are beyond the point of no return. I urge you to contact your legislators to encourage them to pass HB 405.

Rep. Joel Krautter, R-Sidney

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