Secretary of State Corey Stapleton visited Ravalli County Thursday as the 29th county in part of his office’s monthly, “Things That Matter Tour.”
Stapleton toured Hamilton High School and addressed their senior government class, visited the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority (RCEDA), met with business leaders and connected with the county elections office. Election and Voter Services Administrator Stuart Fuller and Policy Advisor Will Selph were on the tour with Stapleton.
Stapleton addressed nearly two-dozen business-focused community members at noon at a business roundtable lunch in Hamilton.
“The mission of the office of the Secretary of State is to help commerce thrive, to record history for future generations and to promote democracy,” Stapleton said. “We promote democracy by running the elections, by overseeing the candidate filings, by overseeing the initiatives and referendums.”
Stapleton said the Secretary of State’s office receives no taxpayer funding. its revenue comes from fees, including 85 percent from business licensing and renewals.
“We definitely have wanted to make an impact and help commerce improve,” he said. “Montana is one of the easiest places to start a business, but what we never say is after three or four years it is one of the hardest places to keep your business going.”
Reasons included challenges in finding customers, hiring and keeping qualified and reliable employees and access to capital.
Stapleton said that one of the biggest challenges for Ravalli County, the seventh biggest county, is that Missoula County “siphons away” funding.
“Sometimes you aren’t treated like your own county and there are very definite impairments that we think our office can work on and help improve,” Stapleton said. “Ravalli County is actually bigger than Butte-Silver Bow and Butte has all sorts of things in terms of economic development and investments.”
The new website sosmt.gov was launched to make paying license and annual renewal fees easier for Montana businesses that now make their payments online.
“I know people resist change but it was a necessary move,” Stapleton said. “We took the error rate from 50,000 per year down to zero. And now we took what used to take 45 clicks of your mouse and reduced it to three — search, click, pay and you’re done for a year.”
Stapleton praised his staff, gave his background and career history then took questions from the audience.
Stevensville Main Street Association Executive Director Lorraine Roach asked how Stapleton’s office and programs work with the Department of Commerce and business development.
Stapleton said he has made many offers to work closer and share web links but his offers were declined.
“There is some separation in that commerce is under the governor’s office and they have their own initiatives,” he said. “Our role is echoing and amplifying all good things. Healthy businesses in communities almost always have collaboration and overlap. You need legislature support, main street support and TIFF districts, and those take a higher level of understanding.”
He said that lengthy position openings at the commerce office have had negative impacts.
Roach said that having market analysis of the state would be helpful. She moved from Idaho several years ago where she could simply ask her regional economist for reports on aspects of the labor force and employment.
“We are currently conducting a market analysis in Stevensville,” she said. “One of our challenges is that in Stevensville 60 percent of our workforce commutes out of town every day. What would be helpful is to know what jobs they are commuting to and then we can use that information.”
She said the Department of Labor collects the raw data, and census information will be available soon, but she can’t get that information.
Stapleton said the business wing of the University of Montana has the best statewide economic analysis.
“That being said, there may be a conflict of interest with them sharing it with you,” he said. “Missoula tends to benefit from Ravalli County and maybe in a way that is not healthy economically. In other words, if they can get away with it, why not do it. I would say that Ravalli County should never be considered a bedroom community, it is too big and powerful it its own right.”
He recommend that Roach start with the Montana Bureau of Economic Research at UM, an economics professor at Bitterroot College and then meet with the Ravalli County Economic Development Authority.
“Having the ability to set your own course that is not dependent upon Missoula is probably going to be important,” Stapleton said.
Taxes, internet sales, natural resources, logging, the Land Board and fracking were other topics discussed.
“If there is any way that we can help commerce thrive in this county let us know,” he said. “Get on sosmt.gov for our newsletter. Get the young people involved.”
Stapleton did not discuss being in the race for governor.
“I’m here on official business, I’m not campaigning,” he said. “I am a candidate and we will have a new governor due to term limits. I’m hopeful, but 2020 will be a crazy year, presidentially and in the state. I hope to continue to serve.”