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Polson businesses rally toward the future

by CAROLYN HIDY
Lake County Leader | May 27, 2021 12:05 AM

With COVID-19 recovery underway, the Polson business community gathered May 19 to discuss how they survived the 2020 shutdown and share resources to help keep businesses vibrant into the future.

Jim Thaden, executive director of Mission West Community Development Partners, broke the ice with an upbeat message.

“There are abundant resources available” to help support economic recovery, Thaden said. Local banks and credit unions are ready to assist with commercial financing. Mission West helps find the grants, loans and other special funds being made available, and free mentors and technical assistance for entrepreneurs and start-ups.

With a large amount of federal stimulus money coming to Montana, “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Thaden said.

Change is inevitable, but the country’s economy is going to grow. It’s important to manage it so that we continue to grow the local economy, he said.

Mission Valley Power General Manager Jean Matt presented information on the local power supply. The utility is federally owned, operated through a contract, and it offers the cheapest power in Montana at 6.89 cents per kwh, well below the state average of 11.2 cents. Mission Valley Power purchases 80 percent of its power from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, and 19 percent from the local SKQ dam (formerly Kerr).

Matt said MVP’s goal is to have any outages throughout the 1600-square-mile service area to be back in service within two hours.

“We are nonprofit, ratepayer funded. We work for you.”

A panel featuring four local businesses gave insight into how various businesses “pivoted” to adapt to the rapid changes that came on so suddenly with the COVID pandemic.

Handmade Montana’s Carol Lynn Lapotka converted her clothing manufacturing site to making masks full time while working to increase the online offerings available from the Montana artists she normally features at large events throughout the year.

Mary Frances Caselli never shut down Mrs. Wonderful Cafe, but switched to offering take-home meals, including casseroles. The Napa Valley food and wine tour was lucky enough to happen during a short window when California was opened up before rising COVID cases again shut business down.

“The loyalty of this town got us through,” Caselli said. “It means so much to the community when you shop locally.”

Bobbie Goldberg had set a goal to buy the building that houses her Second Nature business in downtown Polson. She was closed a full month starting March 27 of last year, and she used the time to build a website and learn everything she could about promoting her business and community on social media in a “supportive and healthy way.”

Godlberg said she also got help from three grants.

“Montana is behind small business, absolutely.”

After reopening, the summer tourist season was extremely busy.

“I could not have done it without the heart that is Polson.”

Brooke Duty, director of marketing and sales for S&K Gaming — which oversees the Kwa Taq Nuk Resort, Gray Wolf Peak Casino in Evaro, and Polson and Big Arm Marinas — said the pandemic shut down the resorts and casinos completely, but she was happy to report that the executive team worked through federal and state stimulus and recovery monies to continue to pay the entire workforce while they were shut down, despite no revenue coming in. To this day, she said, they still have COVID prevention protocols in place.

“We’re back up rocking and rolling.”

Several other presentations led to a discussion about the two-pronged difficulty of finding employees and housing them affordably. Child care and other family care was another need identified.

“Housing is a huge priority for the city of Polson,” said City Manager Ed Meece, who has experienced the problem firsthand since moving here eight months ago.

Caselli said part of recruiting a new chef was networking to find him a place to live.

“We don’t have the advantage of being able to just do a study and then leaving it for others.”

The city is working with community partners on both short- and long-term options for high-quality affordable housing.

Erin Schlock of Polson Job Service said the current national labor shortage was predicted in 2015 due to changing demographics and other factors. Several local businesses are unable to open with their full schedule, attendees said, due to lack of workers. There is some hope that with augmented unemployment insurance coming to end in June, some workers may be incentivized to return.

But Schlock said there are other facets to the issue.

“We are almost at the unemployment rate we were at pre-covid,” Schlock said, “but there is a workforce shortage.” As an example, she mentioned that many women have left the workforce to take care of kids or other family members. She is strategizing with businesses to “think outside the box” for recruitment ideas, including hiring events, signing bonuses, and in some cases, employer-provided housing.

A Chamber of Commerce representative commended the city of Polson for working right away on the housing issue to prevent tent cities and homelessness that other communities are facing.

Representatives from both the city and Mission West said they intend to hold more of this type of open discussion in the future.