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Hi-Line Region Population & Economics, Page 2

The Missouri River From Signal Point
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Despite the population losses and migration experienced on the Montana Hi-Line, the area is hardly a ghost town. Nor is it going to become one. A trip down the Hi-Line shows quite clearly which towns are struggling and prospering. In general, the county seats of each county (which is also usually the largest city) are doing reasonably well. The combination of local government employment, the main business district of the county and, frequently, the location of federal government offices, provides a much needed employment boost for these towns. As such, while many of the county seats have been indeed hard hit by the closing of various agricultural businesses over the years, many have made this up, at least partially, in attracting new businesses to town.

Consolidation on the Hi-Line

Although the county seats of these counties have had many struggles to overcome, the true small towns of the Hi-Line have had to bear the worse effects of the exodus of people and businesses from the area. Towns such as Inverness, Rudyard, Harlem, Bainsville, Culbertson and many others along the Hi-Line have been severely impacted by the exodus of population and resources from the local economy. These people and businesses have either moved into the county seat (the largest town in the county, generally) or have moved on to other pastures in Montana or elsewhere.

Today, what seems to be happening along the Hi-Line region, similar to what has been happening in agriculture for the past several decades is a process of consolidation. The process of consolidation in the Hi-Line region is one of where the small towns of each county seem to continue to lose population and businesses to the larger towns of each county, which is generally the county seat. The county seats of each county, owing to their at least slightly more diversified economy and larger size, provide better employment prospects for county residents. As such, county seats are able to better retain their residents and often attract new ones.

By contrast, many of the small towns on the Hi-Line, which are completely dependent on the agricultural economy, are unable to stop the loss of people due to the reduction in the number of people employed in the agricultural industry. This then leads to a loss of businesses in the town and, often, the closure of the local school. The result is that the small towns of the Hi-Line region continue to get smaller and smaller, while the County Seats are at least able to “tread water” and are often times able to do very well, economically.

Role of the Automobile

Power Plant at Fort Peck Dam
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No small factor in this consolidation of towns along the Hi-Line has been the automobile. There are many small towns on the Hi-Line. Virtually all of these towns were created in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s, long before the automobile invaded this part of Montana in full force. Having all these little towns at that time served the purpose of allowing farmers and ranchers to quickly and easily get supplies – instead of trudging for 30 miles on a slow moving horse or driving in a slow, break-down prone vehicle. Today, though, the modern automobile has shortened distances considerably. Driving an extra 30 miles to town for supplies and services is not a big deal today in terms of time or expense, where-as 80 years ago it was a major effort of time and expenditure.

And so, once again, we see the free market at work along the Hi-Line. The automobile has allowed the thinned down farm and ranch population to reach town easily and relatively quickly, weather conditions permitting. There is, in short, often just not enough demand for products and services to support every town along the Hi-Line today. And this lack of demand leads, invariably, to the decline of many towns on the Hi-Line, as businesses are either forced to move or go out of business as they are unable to make a profit.

Daunting Challenges Ahead

The Montana Hi-Line region faces many challenges in the years ahead. There is some good news, though. While the consolidation of the agricultural industry continues, the pace of consolidation has slowed down recently. Additionally, the agriculture industry in general is now benefiting, and is likely to continue to benefit, from strong commodity prices – due in part to the explosive growth seen in Asia. While there are many things that can trip up a booming agricultural industry, from drought to grasshopper infestations to federal government actions, I do believe that long-term trends point to generally strong commodity prices in the future. This is due to ever-increasing demand for food from a growing world population and a probable continued decline in value of the US dollar (which makes exports of US food less expensive and thus more competitive on the world market).

Yet, while the Montana Hi-Line region may not be seeing many more losses of people who are involved in farm and ranch operations, the towns themselves are hardly out of the woods. While the towns may no longer suffer from a loss of population as the agricultural industry stabilizes, achieving growth in these towns may be a different matter altogether. The sad truth of the Hi-Line region today is that employment prospects are still limited. And the pay of many of the jobs in the Hi-Line region is frequently very low, although this is balanced out quite a bit by the low cost of housing in this part of Montana. As such, many residents leave the Hi-Line region in search of better jobs and careers. And the lack of decent employment prospects frequently prevents new people from moving in.

Recognizing the lack of employment prospects on the Hi-Line, many towns have made a concerted effort to attract new businesses. Few have had much success, owing to the remote locations, limited infrastructure and lack of population. Moreover, the businesses that do move up into the Hi-Line region generally congregate in the larger towns, Havre in particular, thus contributing to the consolidation in the Hi-Line region in general.

The Hi-Line region of Montana also suffers from what is simply bad luck. Over the past two decades, the United States has seen a massive shift in people who want to live on the ocean or in the mountains. People have chosen to live on the ocean or in the mountains due to their scenic beauty, the weather or their recreational opportunities. The Hi-Line region of Montana, and the Great Plains in general, have so far been unable to garner the same motivation from people to move to the prairie.

Agricultural Fields Near Havre, Montana
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Despite these challenges in getting people to stay or move to the Hi-Line in Montana, the biggest challenge of them all is going to be the difficulty these towns face in competing against hundreds of similar type towns throughout the Great Plains. In today’s economy of fast automobiles, air travel, the Internet and modern communications, a town on the Hi-Line has to compete with similar prairie towns in Colorado or Kansas to attract new businesses and people. If the Hi-Line was unique, the only place left in the US that had wide open spaces in the middle of a unspoiled prairie, the Hi-Line would have amazing growth prospects in the future. Unfortunately, the Hi-Line isn’t unique in this regard. And this daunting competition that the Hi-Line towns face will pose a big hurdle in attracting new people and businesses to this corner of Montana.

And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the Hi-Line region lacks what has often been a savior for other small prairie towns; a big, or at least large, city nearby. Many struggling prairie towns throughout the United States have been invigorated, if not completely overcome, by growth in metropolitan areas. As these metropolitan areas grow, invariably, people begin moving further away from the cities and settle in the smaller towns. Unfortunately, the Hi-Line region completely lacks this option. With the possible exception of Chinook and Fort Benton, which stand to benefit from the continuing but slow growth in Havre and Great Falls respectively, none of the Montana Hi-Line towns are in a position to capitalize on the growth of a metropolitan area since there are no metropolitan areas anywhere near the Hi-Line.

Yet, the future of the Hi-Line is hardly a completely bleak one. In the Future of the Hi-Line section on Big Sky Fishing.Com, we'll go over some things that could prove to be beneficial to this area of Montana.

But, for now, let's get on with exploring the Montana Hi-Line in more detail. We'll start first with what we find on the western edge of the Hi-Line, not too far away from Glacier National Park.

Next Page : Western Edge of the Montana Hi-Line

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