Business 2021 in Butte: optimistic, pessimistic and intermediary | Local
Butte’s benefits in 2021 have found ground in Uptown.
Ongoing or completed renovations included: the O’Rourke building, the Curtis Music Hall building and the former Montana headquarters for NorthWestern Energy, a complex of buildings on East Broadway Street that will house Montana Studios.
Joe Willauer, executive director of Butte Local Development Corp., celebrated this work at Uptown Butte.
“We have continued to see an incredible amount of investment in Uptown,” he said, noting that work is continuing to finalize the Uptown Butte master plan.
He said a strong urban core benefits all of Butte-Silver Bow County.
Separately, Willauer noted that positive economic news has also occurred at Montana Connections Business Development Park. The park is west of Butte and near the junction of highways 15 and 90.
There were commercial expansions in the park in 2021 and the completion of a multi-million dollar project adding rail infrastructure.
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On a less positive note, the widespread staff shortage in the country in 2021 has kicked a herd of regional businesses like a 10-legged mule.
Willauer readily acknowledged that the region’s business challenges in 2021 included finding people to fill jobs. Some companies cut their hours or their vacancies because it was harder to find the right people to hire than to find a fine feathered snow goose in the Berkeley Trench.
“The biggest challenge is the workforce,” said Willauer. “It’s not unique to Butte.”
The Uptown Café eliminated dinner and focused on lunch after struggling to find the caliber of workers owners wanted.
Companies have tried to sweeten the pot to attract the kind of worker who would show up regularly and on time.
Town Pump spokesperson Bill McGladdery said the company had increased his starting salary and taken steps, such as signing bonuses on occasion, to attract new hires.
He noted, however, that Town Pump’s staffing needs are greatest during the summer months due to increased travel and tourism.
Other companies trying to hire and retain staff in Butte-Silver Bow County in 2021 include: Silver Bow Pizza Parlor, Mac’s Tavern, Lisac’s Tri-Stop & Good Tymes Casino, and The Derby Steakhouse.
A December 17 summary from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Montana had about 42,000 open jobs in October, an increase of about 4,000 since September. The same report found that Montana had fewer people leaving their jobs in October, with 17,000, than in September, with 21,000 quits.
Nationally, according to the BLS, there were more than 11 million job postings in October across the country.
Jobs in Montana included a key position in this wintry state: Snowplow Operator.
Bill Fogarty, district administrator in Butte for the Montana Department of Transportation, reported in December that he had vacancies for permanent staff and seasonal workers focused on snow removal.
NorthWestern Energy, with Montana headquarters in Butte, has reported staffing issues.
“In 2021, NorthWestern Energy encountered new challenges in hiring certain positions, such as technology professionals,” said Jo Dee Black, spokesperson for the company.
“With more remote work opportunities available for certain industries, NorthWestern Energy is now competing for talent with a wider range of potential employers,” she said.
Black said that while NorthWestern Energy continues to be a preferred employer in Montana, some positions have taken longer to fill than three years ago.
“Our vacancies continue to attract qualified candidates,” she said.
Regional businesses have also battled the continuing impacts of COVID-19, including new strains emerging, and with supply chain challenges, inflation and high gasoline prices.
“In 2021, NorthWestern Energy experienced disruptions and delays in the supply chain as well as many other industries,” said Black.
“For example, equipment that typically delivered six weeks after being ordered, such as meters and voltage regulators, took three to eight months to deliver,” she said. “NorthWestern Energy continually monitors and adjusts the critical inventory of these types of materials to meet longer lead times. “
Black said materials and suppliers are subject to a range of market forces affecting cost and availability.
“For example, hurricanes impacted resin prices, which impacted the price of PVC pipes,” she said. “Increases in the prices of raw materials on metals such as steel, copper and aluminum, as well as petroleum and chemicals, have had an impact on many materials. “
NorthWestern Energy’s access to supplies has also been affected by a nationwide shortage of truck drivers. Industry observers differ on the number of drivers needed.
The American Trucking Associations estimate that the shortage of truck drivers will reach “an all-time high of just over 80,000 drivers” nationwide in 2021. Others suggest the number is around 20,000 .
Regardless, the shortage had impacts in 2021 on businesses large and small in Montana.
Black said NorthWestern Energy had been working with additional carriers to adjust to the shortage.
“Nonetheless, last year and through 2022 the sourcing and delivery of materials is a constant challenge and requires daily vigilance,” said Black. “NorthWestern Energy continues to use many strategies to deliver the materials we need to serve our customers. ”
Meanwhile, people remained interested in Butte and Anaconda real estate.
The Rocky Mountain Association of Realtors in Butte reported on December 14 that home sales in the area “have been the best in 15 years.” The association said 613 homes were sold in Butte-Silver Bow from January 1 to December, up from 2020 when 500 homes were sold. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County also saw an increase over the same period, selling 142 homes in 2021 compared to 110 in 2020.
Anaconda: The Forge and Murdoch’s
The County of Anaconda-Deer Lodge celebrated a new hotel, The Forge, and the hotel’s new home for Barclay II, an Anaconda restaurant long known for its steak dinners.
Anaconda also hailed the news in 2021 that Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply is planning to build a store on the eastern outskirts of town. On December 28, John Aitchison, construction manager for Murdoch’s, said the retailer was excited to continue with the project. He said Murdoch will likely innovate in the spring.
Of course, not all the news was good.
US Minerals announced the closure at the end of June of its Black Diamond dairy plant in Anaconda. The Illinois-headquartered company pleaded guilty in August in federal court to exposing employees to high levels of arsenic at its Anaconda plant, a violation of the Clean Air Act.
Meanwhile, Willauer said he feels optimistic about the New Year.
“We are certainly optimistic for 2022,” he said.
The same could be said of Ray Rogers, CEO of the Praxis Center, a medical simulation training center project that hopes to locate in Uptown Butte.
The $ 36 million project could create jobs and medical interns in Butte-Silver Bow County and be an economic engine for the community and Uptown.
In October, commissioners approved the closure of a block of Wyoming Street and its transformation into a plaza and green space if the Praxis Center becomes a reality at the corner of Arizona and Park streets.
If Praxis goes ahead, it will offer high-tech medical simulation training to rural health practitioners.
In a December 29 email, Rogers reported that things are going well with the development of the Praxis Center.
“In November, we opened a private placement for investors, and we were very successful in attracting investment from southwestern Montana,” said Rogers.
“We will continue to accept investors until early 2022 – interested investors can inquire directly through me,” he said. “We are approaching our financial targets and we hope that our financing will be completed by the beginning of 2022. We still aim to innovate in 2022.”
A private placement is a sale of stocks or bonds to a limited group of investors and institutions rather than on the open market. This is an alternative to an initial public offering for a company seeking to raise capital for a project or expansion.
Rogers was asked how he might respond to people increasingly skeptical of the prospects for the Praxis Center.
“The Praxis Center is a large and complex project that required the integration of many funding sources as well as more than a dozen key business partners and suppliers,” he said.
“This is a local Butte project, and we have worked diligently to make sure the Praxis Center takes place in Uptown Butte,” Rogers said.
“This project has been in the works for a long time and we are very close to the finish line. We would like to thank everyone who patiently and quietly encouraged us. Everywhere I go in Butte, people stop me and ask me how the project is going. The support has been overwhelmingly positive.