reated in 1969 as an economic development district, Bear Paw Development Corporation has been shaping the economic landscape of north-central Montana for nearly 50 years. Since its inception, a dedicated team of specialists have been managing economic development projects, assisting local governments in planning public works, and coordinating investments to further advance the local economy to better serve the needs of the residents within the five-county region. Bear Paw Development is looking to propel its district forward by establishing itself as a leader in alternative energy, transportation, light manufacturing, food processing, health care, value-added agriculture, micro-enterprise development, and workforce education.

In an interview with Irrigation Leader’s editor-in-chief, Kris Polly, Paul Tuss, executive director for Bear Paw Development, speaks about the mission and goals of Bear Paw Development. Mr. Tuss discusses the importance of economic development for the region, new areas for expansion within agriculture, and the many economic incentives the state of Montana has to offer to individuals and businesses that wish to call north-central Montana home.

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Kris Polly: Please tell us about your professional background and the company you work for.

Paul Tuss: I serve as executive director of Bear Paw Development Corporation, located in Havre, Montana. We are an economic development district and have been in operation for 49 years. We serve a five-county region in northern Montana that also includes two Indian reservations. We are a nonprofit economic and community development organization engaged in numerous projects in our very rural area. Bear Paw is a one-stop shop for all economic and community development activities in this region. Half our work is devoted to community development, which is focused on local government infrastructure, including water, wastewater, bridges, senior citizen centers, hospitals, walking trails, and other such amenities.

The other side of our business is devoted to economic development, focusing on job creation and business growth. We are a regional host for a small business development center, which helps entrepreneurs develop business plans to help them finance their small business start-up or expansion plans. We also house one of Montana’s largest revolving loan funds. We have approximately $8 million available to lend to aspiring entrepreneurs or existing business owners who want to open a new business or expand an existing one. We are actively involved in every aspect of economic and community development here in northern Montana.

Next year we celebrate our 50th year. We are Montana’s longest-serving economic development district, and we have been a federally recognized economic development district since the late 1960s. It is pretty unusual to find an organization doing what we do for as long as we have.

Kris Polly: Please tell our readers about the Milk River Project.

Paul Tuss: We have been involved in this project since its inception. We live in an area of northern Montana known as the Milk River Valley. It is a beautiful part of our state,  and from an economic perspective, the valley produces about 10 percent of Montana’s GDP, including a significant portion of its agricultural economy.

Over 100 years ago, an incredible piece of infrastructure known as the St. Mary Conveyance Works was designed and constructed. It transfers water from the St. Mary River Basin to the Milk River Basin. What happened 100 years ago, and continues to happen to this very day, is the Milk River Valley flourishes because we are able to irrigate tens of thousands of acres of land. We live in a fairly arid part of the country, and the Milk River, which flows right through Havre, would actually run dry 7 of 10 years if this infrastructure component was not constructed 100 years ago. We owe our livelihood to this incredible piece of infrastructure that, unfortunately, needs work right now. It is located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and delivers water that ultimately goes into Canada and comes back into the United States just north of Havre. This water is used not only to irrigate an incredible amount of land, but also for municipal drinking water, economic development purposes, and of course, recreational purposes throughout our region. We refer to it as the lifeline of the Hi-Line. 

Kris Polly: Is Bear Paw interested in further economic development on the St. Mary’s project in the Milk River Valley?

Paul Tuss: We sure are. We seize every opportunity we can to help communities grow and become great places to live, work, raise a family, and build a business. Candidly, none of these things could happen without this project. This is arguably the single most important infrastructural enhancement in northern Montana when it comes to making communities economically viable and great places to live. We are heavily invested in making sure that this project moves forward and that the necessary rehabilitation happens as quickly as possible.

Kris Polly: How many acres are irrigated by the project now?

Paul Tuss: Around 121,000 acres are irrigated with water from this project. Agriculture is the backbone to our economy here in northern Montana and always will be. This level of agricultural production simply would not exist if this infrastructural enhancement had not been constructed over 100 years ago.

Kris Polly: What are some of the crops that are grown there, and what types of economic projects are you trying to bring to the project?

Paul Tuss: We have traditional crops, including wheat and barley, that have always been grown here. However, there are now a significant number of pulse crops that are being grown in this area, including chickpeas and lentils. Montana has gone from being a bit player in the pulse crop market just a few years ago to the number 1 in the nation for growing certain pulse crops, including lentils. Our region here in northern Montana is heavily involved in that market. None of this would be possible without the capacity to irrigate these acres with water that flows into the Milk River because of the St. Mary Conveyance.

Kris Polly: Are you interested in attracting processors or potential specialty crops to the valley?

Paul Tuss: You bet. We understand full well that as significant an economic driver as traditional agriculture is, taking traditional agriculture to the next level and adding value to the commodities we grow is equally important. We at Bear Paw Development greatly value the partnerships we have with industry and the agricultural community to add value to the commodities we grow. In other words, rather than simply shipping wheat to the Pacific Rim, it would be far better to be baking bread with it and getting a higher price for the quality products we grow here. The idea is that value-added activity will result in higher profits for our agricultural producers. Rather than simply raising cattle, we can produce high-end beef that can be processed right here. We have an entire department at Bear Paw Development that is devoted exclusively to value-added agriculture. We assist people at the local level when it comes to things they want to do. For example, we have helped a local snack food manufacturer whose product is grown organically here in our region. If we can add value to these incredible agricultural products that farmers and ranchers have been growing for over 100 years in our region, we are going to see the benefits of that for decades to come.

Kris Polly: What are some advantages that companies should be aware of before doing business in Montana?

Paul Tuss: We are 35 miles from the Canadian border. Even for those of us who live that close to Canada, we tend to forget that our neighbors to the north are not just great friends of ours but also are consumers. There are a lot of people who live on that southern border of Canada. If I were to get in my vehicle right now and drive 4 hours north of Havre, Montana, I would be in Calgary, which is a city of 1 million people. We are strategically located in an area of Montana, and in an area of the United States, that has geographic access to an incredibly large market. If we can successfully grow crops in our area, which we know we can, and then add value to them through food and other manufacturing processes, access the Canadian market is a great benefit.

Kris Polly: Are there any incentives that people should be aware of?

Paul Tuss: That is one of the great values of working with an organization like Bear Paw Development. We have eight well-trained economic development professionals on our staff to assist entrepreneurs and people that may want to start a business. We have access to all the various funding agencies at both the state and federal level. We house a number of programs to help entrepreneurs who are just starting out, as well as business owners that have been in business for a while. We also have loan funds available to start and grow a business. Interested entrepreneurs should get in touch with us.

Kris Polly: Are there any tax advantages to doing business in Montana?

Paul Tuss: One of the big tax advantages to doing business in Montana is that we do not have a sales tax. We are one of just a handful of states that does not have a sales tax. That is a significant benefit not only to businesses, but also consumers. An additional tax incentive, particularly from a property tax perspective, is that we have a legislatively authorized property tax break for new and emerging businesses here in Montana. We also are home to several tax increment finance districts that assist businesses and communities build their physical infrastructure. There are a number of advantages to locating in Montana.

Kris Polly: If people want to know more information, where should they go?

Paul Tuss: We are can also find us through our website is bearpaw.org. We are willing to do whatever we can to find the right resources to help people grow their business.

Steve Davies is the Area Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation’s Montana Area Office. He can be reached at sdavies@usbr.gov