Survey shows Ravalli county wages ‘dead last’

Ravalli County’s Economic Development Authority is set to unveil the results of
an area economic needs assessment in the coming weeks and, though not yet
compiled in report form, members said there are some surprising results.

By JAMIE OGDEN Ravalli Republic Staff Reporter

"It’s not a simple picture, it’s a complicated picture … and it flies in the face of

a lot of mythology about the area," said Larry Swanson, the economist heading
up the study through the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

EDA board member Jay Milligan said several pieces of information emerging from
the study struck him as surprising. Milligan, who has been working on the study
committee, got a glimpse of the results during a recent focus group meeting.

He said Wednesday that among the myths dispelled by the study’s compelling
facts is the idea that Ravalli County is a growing retirement community. A faster
growing segment of Ravalli County’s new population is actually made up of
pre-retirees or early retirees, people in their 40s and 50s, Milligan said.

Utilizing a special database, Swanson gauged the performance of the county’s
economy, ranking Ravalli County across a broad set of indicators with about 30
carefully selected "peer counties."

Across those 30 peer counties, which show varying similarities with Ravalli
County such as population or federal lands, Milligan said he learned that the
Bitterroot is an actual leader in the number of new jobs created. Yet, when
ranked according to how the average wage earner fares, he said, the county
comes in "dead last."

That economic development projects may be better targeted at improving wages
than creating new jobs is just one example of how the economic needs
assessment will help guide the work of the county EDA, according to Milligan.

"You can be doing the wrong things for the right reasons," he said. "We need to
target our efforts. It (the study) will give us an accurate snapshot in time, right
now, of where our valley is at economically, rather than speculating."

Economic development programs that work, according to Swanson, are built on a
baseline of information that provides a good idea of the kinds of changes going on
in a local economy.

"More than anything, it’s important for people not to operate under falsehoods
about how the local economy works," Swanson said.

And while Swanson’s research unveils economic challenges unique to Ravalli
County, there are also many economic opportunities for the area, he said.

"The growth path the area is on is a challenge," said Swanson. "It also presents
some great opportunities. But good things don’t just happen. If growth continues
to happen in a very haphazard way, it won’t necessarily transform into some of
the economic benefits that you’d have in a growing area."

Milligan said the EDA will strive to distill the breadth of the recent study down to
a set of "marching orders" for the local authority.

"As well intentioned as we are and as hard as we work, we won’t be successful
unless we do the right things," he said.

The Ravalli County Area Economic Needs Assessment was funded by a $22,000
grant from the U.S. Forest Service to the EDA, who hired the Missoula-based,
but regionally-focused, O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West last fall.

A public presentation of study results is set for Wednesday, July 24 from 10 a.m.
to 12 p.m. at the County Administration Building.

Summary copies will be available at the meeting and thereafter, while publication
of a complete report is expected in August.

For more information on the study call the Ravalli County EDA at 375-9416.

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