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Economic and dam related articles

Now, For the Good News

by Kellyn Brown
Flathead Beacon, September 9, 2011

For almost three years, since the economy tumbled and layoffs spread across the Flathead Valley, you have read a series of bleak headlines here and elsewhere. There were false starts, and perhaps this is another one. But signs that the local job picture may be brightening locally is, for a change, worth talking about.

True, July's unemployment was another sad number in a long line of them. The non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate was 10.4 percent, the exact rate as this time last year. And the real number is much higher when factoring in the underemployed and those who have simply given up looking for a job. But the rate is also one point lower than a month prior, while the state average actually increased.

Then there's the potential for more work, which must be considered cautiously, especially in the case of the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company. Once again the plant and Bonneville Power Administration are in talks to restart production. And once again the valley must wait to see if they reach a deal.

BPA has proposed selling 140 average megawatts to CFAC at the industrial firm power rate in a four-and-a-half year contract beginning April 1. That's enough for the smelter to run two of its five pot lines and the contract stipulates that CFAC employ 231 full-time employees to run the facility. That's a lot. And that's not all.

CFAC officials are also considering purchasing power at market rate to restart a third line, which could employ 70 more people. This is far from a done deal but everyone involved has acknowledged it's the closest the two sides have come to an agreement in the last two years.

Then there's Zinc Air, an ambitious young company based near Columbia Falls that is making batteries capable of storing large amounts electricity and marketing them to the wind power industry.

Recently, it inked a deal with Juhl Wind, Inc., to provide an advanced 1-megawatt advanced energy storage system to a Minnesota wind farm.

A Zinc Air representative spoke at a recent Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon and said the company hopes to provide 400 to 500 research and development jobs in the Flathead by 2015. That's also a lot.

Other major employers in the Flathead are also doing relatively well. Since Applied Materials bought Semitool, rumors have surfaced that the company would shutter the local operation. Instead, it has thrived and a spokesperson reiterated in a recent interview that it has no plans to move, adding, "Semitool's killing it for us." The company employs about 700 people in the Flathead.

Last year, Plum Creek Timber Company saw a reversal of fortunes in its manufacturing sector after two consecutive years of heavy losses. While the housing industry is still reeling, the company's earnings have increased.

At Flathead Valley Community College, the school is in the preliminary stages of building a nursing school thanks to a $4 million gift. And some of the students it trains may end up working at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, which is in the midst of a major expansion.

Yes, that unemployment number still casts a shadow over the Flathead economy. It has stubbornly remained above 10 percent for 21 of the last 22 months. In that time there has been little to root for economically.

News about the potential for more work is just that. But at least we're reading about jobs, and not just those lost.

Kellyn Brown
Now, For the Good News
Flathead Beacon, September 9, 2011

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