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Panel discusses options to grow Great Falls

Hanning says that people should avoid comparing Great Falls to other cities in Montana.
Posted at 6:04 PM, Jan 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-11 12:08:14-05

GREAT FALLS — Middling population growth over the past two decades is pushing Great Falls development and realty leaders to discuss why people are sometimes hesitant to move to Great Falls over other cities in and around Montana.

The problem right now, however, is that we’re stuck in a metaphorical loop. Some people may be hesitant to move to and settle down in Great Falls due to the lack of big companies and chains.

Big companies and chains have been somewhat cautious about entering the Great Falls market due to the lack of people. Great Falls has a population of about 58,000, compared to more than 76,000 in Missoula and more than 110,000 in Billings.

Great Falls Homebuilders Association executive officer Katie Hanning says that all it would take for companies to see that the city is worth looking into is one to lead the herd.

“Just one. Just one,” she said. “Something to give us that little boost, and I think we should support, we wholeheartedly support the efforts of the development authority. They’re trying to find that ‘just one’, and I think if we get behind them and support that, then it will all come, but it is a slow moving process.”

The slow moving process has frustrated many people in Great Falls over the years, as the slow population growth (and in some years, decline) don’t paint a pretty picture of a city and an economy that wants to grow. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 1990, the population of Great Falls was 55,392. In 2017 it was 58,876. Compare that to the population growth of Billings (+28,105) and Missoula (+24,760) during that time, and you can see why development efforts can sometimes be frustrating.

Competition for development is not limited to other cities in Montana. The internet plays a role too, stunting the growth of retail opportunities moving into the city.

“The internet is something that, if you’re in retail, is definitely big on your plate,” Hanning said. “It also can be beneficial. A lot of our builder guys have websites, so somebody coming into Great Falls can go and preview what they want to have built and where they want to live. It’s changing the world, not just Great Falls, but everywhere.”

Despite the less than ideal numbers, Hanning says that people should avoid comparing Great Falls to other cities in Montana.

“I think Great Falls should never be compared to anywhere else other than Great Falls,” she explained. “We have things that make us better than other places and then we have things that cause us problems and concerns. I think if you just say ‘well they do this and we do that,’ it may not work for our economy, and I think we need to just focus on our economy and stop comparing ourselves to other places. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a goal to be similar, but my gosh, let’s just celebrate what we have, but still commenting and making sure that we want to grow in that direction.”

If you would like to be a part of the development and expansion discussion, keep an eye out for the next Town Hall meeting date, which will include City Director of Planning and Community Development Craig Raymond, as well as some of the members of the Executive Roundtable Panel.