October 7, 2022


Skillful Business Crafters

2021 Business in Butte: Upbeat, downbeat and in-between | Local

Butte’s 2021 upsides found traction in Uptown.

Renovations either underway or completed included, among others: The O’Rourke building, the Curtis Music Hall building and the one-time headquarters in Montana for NorthWestern Energy, a complex of buildings on East Broadway Street that will be home to Montana Studios.

Joe Willauer, executive director of Butte Local Development Corp., celebrated that work in Uptown Butte.

“We continued to see an incredible amount of investment in Uptown,” he said, noting that work continues 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 been brewing too at the Montana Connections Business Development Park. The park is west of Butte and near the junction of Interstates 15 and 90.

There were business expansions at the park in 2021 and completion of a multi-million dollar project adding rail infrastructure.

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On a less positive note, the nation’s widespread staffing shortage in 2021 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 businesses cut hours or offerings because finding the right people to hire was tougher than finding a snow goose in fine feather in the Berkeley Pit.

“The biggest challenge is workforce,” Willauer said. “That’s not unique to Butte.”

The Uptown Café eliminated dinner and focused instead on lunch after struggling to find the caliber of workers sought by the owners.  

Businesses tried to sweeten the pot to attract the sort of worker who would regularly show up and show up on time.

Bill McGladdery, a spokesman for Town Pump, said the company has bumped up its starting wage and otherwise taken steps, such as signing bonuses on occasion, to attract new hires.

He noted, though, that Town Pump’s staffing needs are greater during the summer months of increased travel and tourism.

Other businesses grappling in 2021 to hire and keep staff in Butte-Silver Bow County included: Silver Bow Pizza Parlor, Mac’s Tavern, Lisac’s Tri-Stop & Good Tymes Casino and The Derby Steakhouse.

A Dec. 17 summary from the U.S. 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 quitting 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 openings in October nationwide.

The job openings in Montana included a key position in this wintry state: snowplow driver.

Bill Fogarty, district administrator in Butte for the Montana Department of Transportation, reported in December that he had openings for both permanent staff and seasonal workers focused on snow removal.

NorthWestern Energy, with Montana headquarters in Butte, reported some staffing challenges.

“In 2021, NorthWestern Energy did experience new challenges hiring for some positions, such as technology professionals,” said Jo Dee Black, a spokeswoman for the company.

“With more opportunities for remote work available for some sectors, NorthWestern Energy is competing for talent with a broader scope of potential employers now,” she said.

Black said that even though NorthWestern Energy continues to be a preferred employer in Montana, some positions took longer to fill than they would have three years ago.

“Our job announcements continue to attract qualified applicants,” she said.  

Regional businesses struggled also with the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, including newly emerging strains, and with supply-chain challenges, inflation and steep prices for gasoline.

 “In 2021, NorthWestern Energy experienced supply chain disruptions and delays along with many other industries,” said Black.

“As an example, equipment that typically was delivered six weeks after being ordered, such as meters and voltage regulators, took from three to eight months for delivery,” she said.  “NorthWestern Energy has been continually monitoring and adjusting critical inventory of these types of materials to meet the longer lead times.”

Black said materials and suppliers are subject to an array of market forces affecting cost and availability.

“For example, hurricanes created impacts on resin prices, which impacted the price of PVC pipe,” she said. “Commodity price increases on metals such as steel, copper and aluminum, as well as oil and chemicals, have impacted many materials.”

NorthWestern Energy’s access to supplies was affected also by a national shortage of truck drivers. Industry observers differ about how many drivers are needed.

The American Trucking Associations organization estimates that the truck driver shortage will hit “a historic high of just over 80,000 drivers” nationally in 2021. Others suggest this number is about 20,000.

Regardless, the shortage has had impacts in 2021 on businesses large and small in Montana.

Black said NorthWestern Energy worked with additional haulers to adjust to the shortage.

“Nonetheless, the last year and continuing into 2022, sourcing and delivery of materials is a constant challenge and requires vigilance on a daily basis,” Black said. “NorthWestern Energy continues to use numerous strategies to supply our needed materials to serve our customers.” 

Meanwhile, people remained interested in Butte and Anaconda real estate.

The Rocky Mountain Association of Realtors in Butte reported on Dec. 14 that home sales in the region “are the best they have been for 15 years.” The association said that 613 homes were sold in Butte-Silver Bow from Jan. 1 to December, up from 2020 when 500 homes sold. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County also notched an increase during the same period, selling 142 homes in 2021 compared to 110 in 2020.

Anaconda: The Forge and Murdoch’s

Anaconda-Deer Lodge County 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 welcomed the news in 2021 that Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply plans to build a store on the east edge of town. On Dec. 28, John Aitchison, construction manager for Murdoch’s, said the retailer is excited about proceeding with the project. He said Murdoch’s will likely break ground in the spring.

Of course, all the news wasn’t good.

U.S. Minerals announced it had closed its Black Diamond slag facility in Anaconda at the end of June. The company, headquartered in Illinois, pleaded guilty in August in federal court to exposing employees to elevated levels of arsenic at its Anaconda facility, a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, Willauer said he is feeling upbeat about the New Year.

“We’re certainly optimistic about 2022,” he said.

The same could be said of Ray Rogers, CEO of the Praxis Center, a proposed medical simulation training center that hopes to establish a home in Uptown Butte.

The $36 million project could bring jobs and medical trainees to Butte-Silver Bow County and be an economic driver for the community and Uptown.

In October, commissioners approved closing off a block of Wyoming Street and turning it into a plaza and green space if the Praxis Center becomes a reality at the corner of Arizona and Park streets.

If Praxis moves forward, it would provide high-tech medical simulation training for rural health care practitioners.

In a Dec. 29 email, Rogers reported that things are going well with the Praxis Center’s development.

“In November, we opened up a private placement for investors, and we have had great success attracting investment from Southwest Montana,” Rogers said.  

“We will continue to accept investors into early 2022 – interested investors can inquire directly through me,” he said. “We are nearing our finance goals, and we hope to have our financing completed in early 2022. We still have a goal of groundbreaking in 2022.”

A private placement is a sale of stock shares or bonds to a limited pool of investors and institutions rather than on the open market. It 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 who are growing skeptical about the Praxis Center’s prospects.

“The Praxis Center is a significant and complex project that has required the integration of many funding sources as well as over a dozen key corporate and vendor partners,” he said.  

“This is a home-grown Butte project, and we have been working diligently to make sure that the Praxis Center happens in Uptown Butte,” Rogers said.

“This project has been a long time in the making, and we are very close to the finish line. We want to thank everyone who has been patiently and quietly cheering us on. Everywhere I go in Butte, people stop me and ask how the project is going. The support has been overwhelmingly positive.”