By Brent Donnelly

As director for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Montana District, I have the unique opportunity to work with entrepreneurs and small business owners across Montana to help provide capital and connections that support growth for our state’s businesses. This year has kept my team busy as we’ve worked with local lenders to secure forgivable loans for 24,000 small business owners through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and other SBA lending programs designed to help keep businesses afloat during the extreme challenges we’ve faced.

 Earlier this month, I approached my team and told them that I wanted to end the year on a positive note – doing something awesome to encourage small business owners while also challenging Montanans to shop local. Through this, we created the Peaks to Plains Business Resiliency Tour, a 3,400-mile road trip that took us to small businesses in all 56 Montana counties within seven days. This journey allowed us to hear incredible stories of grit, ingenuity, and community commitment from business owners in every county of the state.

 In one county, a business owner told us how members of their community came in to buy gift certificates, only to rip them up – they just wanted to do their part to ensure the store would get through the pandemic. A floral boutique told us how they had put in a sizeable flower order before the local prom was cancelled. With the significant revenue-generating event no longer existent, the flower shop encouraged local residents to buy a flower and give it to someone as a random act of kindness. Within hours, the flowers were sold out. A clothing store set up a “blessing board” that allowed shoppers to provide discounts to certain groups of people like healthcare workers, first responders, pastors, and teachers. More businesses than ever took to social media to promote their goods and services, and restaurants pivoted business models in order to safely provide food services for their hometowns. Local lenders went above and beyond to assist businesses with lending programs and the financial complexities imposed by the pandemic. This year has truly demonstrated how Montanans come together during challenging times. Neighbors help neighbors. Communities support their own. 

 While nearly every business told us of the incredible ways their community sustained them, we heard stories of struggle and tragedy, too. We were moved as the owner of a rural coffee shop told us how the coronavirus took the life of her mom and business partner this year despite the implementation of aggressive health precautions. As we listened to her story, we watched customers come the shop and break into tears as they embraced the owner and told her how much her mom and their business meant to the town.

These stories – and dozens of others – demonstrate the essential qualities of this sector, because in Montana, small businesses ARE our communities. Statewide, 99.3 percent of businesses are classified as “small businesses,” and that pool employs more than 65 percent of our state’s workforce. To put it simply, in order for Montana to succeed, small businesses must succeed.

 The SBA has played a pivotal role in supporting small businesses this year amidst the pandemic, but no amount of aid compares to customers in stores or families in restaurants. Many locally owned retailers earn roughly 50 percent of annual revenues during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so it’s critical that people continue to shop and eat local in the coming weeks.

 Soon we’ll welcome in a new year where we’ll share more of the incredible stories we heard in the last few weeks. While it’s impossible to predict what 2021 holds, I’m confident that Montana small businesses will sustain the unmatched resolve that has carried them through this year. I’m hopeful people will continue shopping and dining locally. And I, along with Kelly, Rena, Tom, Martin, and Andy in the SBA Montana District, remain absolutely committed to working with unyielding intensity to deliver support and resources to Montana entrepreneurs.

Brent Donnelly is the Small Business Administration District Director for Montana.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), in consultation with the Treasury Department, has  re-opened the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for new borrowers and certain existing PPP borrowers. To promote access to capital in underserved communities, only community financial institutions could initially make PPP Loans starting on January 11.  The PPP is now open to all participating lenders.

This round of the PPP continues to prioritize millions of Americans employed by small businesses by authorizing up to $284 billion toward job retention and certain other expenses through March 31, 2021, and by allowing certain existing PPP borrowers to apply for a Second Draw PPP Loan.

“The PPP was an incredible shot in the arm for small businesses last year, and this second wave of financial support will especially be a boost to businesses in rural and underserved communities,” said Dan Nordberg, SBA’s National Director of Rural Affairs and Region VIII Administrator. “With a targeted opening, SBA is prioritizing and extending relief to impacted business owners who need it the most. If you own or operate a small business, I strongly encourage you to look into this opportunity for assistance. As always, our SBA team is eager to answer questions, offer help through the process, and connect business owners and entrepreneurs with tools for long-term health and success.”

Key PPP updates include:

*   PPP borrowers can set their PPP loan’s covered period to be any length between 8 and 24 weeks to best meet their business needs;

*   PPP loans will cover additional expenses, including operations expenditures, property damage costs, supplier costs, and worker protection expenditures;

*   The Program’s eligibility is expanded to include 501(c)(6)s, housing cooperatives, destination marketing organizations, among other types of organizations;

*   The PPP provides greater flexibility for seasonal employees;

*   Certain existing PPP borrowers can request to modify their First Draw PPP Loan amount; and

*   Certain existing PPP borrowers are now eligible to apply for a Second Draw PPP Loan.

A borrower is generally eligible for a Second Draw PPP Loan if the borrower:

*   Previously received a First Draw PPP Loan and will or has used the full amount only for authorized uses;

*   Has no more than 300 employees; and

*   Can demonstrate at least a 25% reduction in gross receipts between comparable quarters in 2019 and 2020.

Signing his first executive order, Governor Greg Gianforte established the Red Tape Relief Task Force.

 Governor Gianforte, who campaigned on the promise of conducting a top-to-bottom regulatory review of all state agencies, will rely on the task force to identify excessive, outdated, and unnecessary regulations. Lieutenant Governor Kristen Juras will lead the task force.

Montana small businesses are saddled with over 60,000 regulations.

“The message from Montana small business owners, farmers, and ranchers has been loud and clear: unnecessary red tape is out of control, and they need help. Today we’re taking our first steps to provide them with much needed red tape relief, and I’m grateful to Lieutenant Governor Juras for leading the charge,” said Gianforte said after signing the executive order.

The Red Tape Relief Task Force will present its report and proposals to the governor by August 1, 2021.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Following the experience of the heavy hand of government laid upon small businesses over the past year, one must hope that business people are rethinking their ideas about benefits of any “health and safety” they think emanate from the helping hand of “big brother.”

The experience lays bare also the emerging reality of how businesses are being used by government.

More and more business owners are being forced by government to function like an extension of government – at considerable expense and under ominous threats  — burdens that detract considerably from their ability to function as a successful business.

From being tax collectors and health care providers, to enforcing smoking laws or policing citizen conduct, businesses have become an uncompensated department of government over-reach. It’s time that it be identified for what it is and stopped.

Part of the strategy of coercion lies in the regulatory and licensing process that has been heaped onto business for decades, now. Sometimes that has happened with the willing cooperation of some businesses as they hoped to gain some advantage over their competition.

But, given that the past few months have blatantly demonstrated how the regulations and licensing and permitting powers they granted to government can boomerang, one has to hope that thinking business people will seriously reconsider their ideas about regulations and any competitive advantage they might think it gives them. Hopefully they have seen how serious the loss of their liberties can be.

 At every turn, business people who wanted to claim their civil rights to produce and serve and exchange value for value, with willing fellow citizens called customers, their freedom has been usurped by unelected, well-paid bureaucrats utilizing unlegislated laws and under threat by non-police police, of fines and imprisonment. Non- compliance has meant the very real possibility of losing their business, their livelihood, their investments and life savings. If that doesn’t incentivize a moment of reconsideration, nothing will.

Absolutely none of this in any way reflects the characteristics of a free county, and it sets in place an escalating course that can only get worse and utterly destroy the foundation of what has been the most vital business environment that has ever existed. Stopping it means reversing many of the existing restraints on business and it all begins at home and in the state legislature where it was initially implemented.

Last week, Governor Greg Gianforte released his proposed budget for state government for the 2023 biennium.

The plan would fulfill many of the policy priorities he outlined in his “Montana Comeback Plan” with the priorities of getting the economy going again, safely opening businesses, and getting Montanans back to work.

The budget provides $50 million in broad-based and targeted tax relief, including cutting the top marginal income tax rate to 6.75%. In 2019, Montanans who earned a taxable income of more than $18,400 paid the top marginal rate of 6.9%.

“This roadmap to the Montana comeback will help unlock our state’s full, outstanding potential,” Gianforte said.

He highlighted efforts to control state spending, saying, “I promised we would hold the line on new general fund spending. This budget does. After a decade of out-of-control spending, this budget brings fiscal responsibility back to state government while providing essential services.”

The governor’s budget also relieves 4,000 small businesses from the burden of the business equipment tax by raising the exemption from $100,000 to $200,000. The business equipment tax is a unique Montana tax that requires businesses to pay taxes on equipment, supplies and tools used in the production and operation of the business.

Gianforte’s budget boosts funding by 25 percent for programs providing property tax relief to low-income homeowners, including disabled veterans and seniors.

To combat the drug epidemic, the Gianforte budget devotes marijuana tax revenue and part of the tobacco tax settlement to the HEART Fund, or the Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment Fund. It will fund a full continuum of substance abuse prevention and treatment programs for communities. With $7 million in new fund and a federal match, the governor’s budget invests an additional $23.5 million per year in substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

The governor proposes a $1 million investment in trades education by providing a credit for employee education and training.

Gianforte’s budget also provides $2.5 million of incentives to raise the pay of Montana’s starting teachers. Montana ranks last in the country in starting teacher pay.

Gianforte noted that, even with statutory required spending and investments in combating the drug epidemic, increasing starting teacher pay, and expanding trades education, total general fund spending increases less than one percent per year.

TC Energy Corporation has launched an open season to solicit binding commitments for crude oil transportation services on the Keystone Pipeline System from Hardisty, Alberta to Patoka, Illinois. Interested parties may submit binding bids for transportation capacity during the open season that will close at 12 p.m.MT on February 19, 2021. Information regarding the open season is available online or by contacting

Montana’s legislative leaders are highly recommending but not requiring face coverings for people participating in the Legislature. The panel voted 6-2, with both Democrats voting no, to temporarily accept recommendations that masks be highly recommended and temperature checks highly encouraged for people entering the Capitol and that people with symptoms or awaiting a test participate in the Legislature remotely. They also agreed to wear masks while interacting with legislative staff in their offices.

Frame of Reference Fine Art from Whitefish, is opening a second location at 573 Electric Ave. in Bigfork. The second location will precipitate a name change to FOR Fine Art. The new shop will feature similar genres as the orinial location but also include work by artists exclusive to the Bigfork location. FoR Fine Art is tentatively scheduling a soft opening for Valentine’s Day 2021.

The Ratkowskis family of Kalispell are launching Montana Milk Moovers, a family business they started last spring to connect customers with local agriculture producers. The Ratkowski family works with producers in Kalispell to collect fresh milk, meat, produce and other groceries every day. Recipients sign up online and indicate the quantity and frequency they’d like to have their orders. Customers pay to install a porch box that keeps their products cold and fresh, plus a delivery charge.

Two conservation groups Friends of the Wild Swan and the Swan View Coalition have taken issue with clear-cut openings that have been proposed by Flathead National Forest officials as part of a forest management project near Bigfork. The groups claim that four clear cuts proposed within the Bug Creek Integrated Resource Management Project are larger than what the revised Flathead National Forest Plan recommends for such projects. The public has one month to provide comment on the four openings in Bug Creek.

Great Falls-based Benefis Health System has  announced plans to open the space at 2960 N. Washington St. Helena, in the middle of the year. The new facility will complement the Benefis clinic being built at the former site of the Capital Hill Mall on Prospect Avenue.

Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality has  issued a water quality certification for the Keystone XL pipeline project in eastern Montana, required since the pipeline would cross 201 wetland and water body features, including streams and rivers, that are regulated by the Clean Water Act. Conditions of the issuance include spill prevention measures as well as a re-opener clause, which would allow the certification to be modified to ensure ongoing compliance with applicable water quality standards. These conditions also include an oversight role for the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation Office of Environmental Protection. Joe Biden has pledged to shelve the project, which was first proposed 12 years ago, although it is not clear what the legal framework for that would be, given that construction of the $8 billion project under the U.S.-Canada border has already begun.

A proposal to allow “work camps” in the West Glacier region to house summer employees has been proposed by a land use committee for the area. In past years some employees have lived in campgrounds in tents. The regulations require that neighbors be informed of a proposed work camp. If the planning board, approves the new regulations, it would forward the regulations to the county commissioners for final approval.

Scott Osterman of Applied Materials in Kalispell, has been nominated by Gov. Greg Gianforte to lead the Montana Department of Commerce. Osterman is originally from Northcentral Montana. Over his business career he has served in Fortune 500 companies and venture start-ups. He has been employed in the semiconductor, automobile and high-tech hardware and software industries.

According to a Stanford University and University of California SD report wildfire smoke accounted for up to half of all health-damaging small particle air pollution in the western U.S. in recent years. Researchers used satellite images of smoke plumes and government air quality data to model how much pollution was generated nationwide by fires from 2016 to 2018 compared to a decade earlier.

Helena Regional Airport is seeking to entice American Airlines to come to Helena. The airport plans to apply for a Department of Transportation Small Community Air Service Development Grant.  The airport has met with several airlines in order to bring more opportunity to Helena. Currently Billings is the only Montana airport that has direct flights to Phoenix.

Due to the crippling COVID restrictions on business another restaurant in Montana is closing. After almost 30 years of business, Santa Fe Red’s in Bozeman closed January 5.  A full-service Mexican restaurant and cantina that opened in 1994, the business managed for a while because they had outdoor seating, but when the weather got cold weather it ended their reprieve.

At the same time, a new business is opening in Bozeman. A smoothie shop offering acai bowls, smoothies and post-workout recovery shakes called Blended Shakes and Smoothies has opened on Main Street across from Bozeman High School.  Michelle Ronsen is the owner of the shop which provides dine-in or to go smoothies

St. Peter’s Health in Helena announced the completion of a $9 million expansion to its hospital operating room. The 2-year renovation project began in 2017. It included the expansion to the center’s operating room and sterile processing department, introducing cutting-edge surgical equipment and technology. It is expected the new facility will help in recruiting more surgeons and surgical specialties.

Gallatin County’s residential real estate market saw increases in closed sales and average sales price last month, while the inventory of available homes tightened significantly in November compared to last year. In November, median sales prices increased 46.4%, from $420,000 in November 2019 to $615,000 in November 2020. Closed sales increased 39.1%, from 110 to 153, and pending sales jumped 19.1%, from 89 to 106. The number of new single-family listings increased 21.3% compared to November 2019, from 75 to 91. The average days on market increased 14.6%, from 41 to 47. Sellers received 99.2% of their list price last month, up slightly from 97.9% last year. The inventory of homes for sale decreased 66.6%, from 467 to 156. The months supply of inventory decreased 71.4%, from 3.5 to 1.0 compared to last year.

Allegro Group, Inc. has acquired LEAD 406, a leadership development and experiential learning company based in Bozeman. The acquisition expands Allegro Group’s consulting practice. LEAD 406 Managing Partner Phil Kornachuk joins Allegro Group as Managing Director of Leadership Development. He will head the company’s new office in Bozeman. Allegro Group, founded in 2015, helps companies build and develop high-performance leadership teams..

According to homeselling platform iSoldMyHouse, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, Kansas and Maine have the happiest people, made happy by having the most affordable cost of living, low crime rates, high employment and graduate rates, longer average life expectancies, high-quality hospitals, pristine air quality, and plenty of sunshine. Montana was in the second tier of happy people. Unhappy people are to be found in states like California, Nevada, Alaska, Louisiana, West Virginia, Pennsylvania.

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) recently issued a new load posting for the Old Highway 10 Drainage Bridge six miles east of Hysham, in Treasure County. The posting is part of a multi-year effort to update load ratings and postings on Montana bridges as mandated by the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA mandate is in response to changes in the trucking industry over the last decade. Truck manufacturers are building specialized hauling vehicles (SHVs), which are capable of legally carrying heavier loads than typical vehicles have in the past. These SHV configurations concentrate heavy loads over a short length, and they have been found to overstress bridges beyond what was previously modeled by standard commercial vehicles.

Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) has been selected to lead a national VHA pilot program to bring vaccines to rural Veterans. On the morning of January 21, a vaccination team will fly doses of the Moderna vaccine in special plug-in coolers from Fort Harrison’s ultracold on-site freezer to Havre. MTVAHCS staff has begun calling eligible enrolled Veterans to schedule vaccine appointments.

With the start of the 2021 Legislature, Montana Chamber of Commerce has laid out its top policy priorities for the new year, the focus of which is aimed at near-term recovery and maintaining long-term, sustainable economic growth. 

Todd O’Hair, President and CEO of the Montana Chamber of Commerce identified the challenges to business following the COVID restrictions imposed by government that is threatening the survivability of many in the state. “We remain optimistic that the upcoming legislative session will deliver prosperity for all Montanans in the years ahead,” he said, “Achieving this will require getting our economy back on track – businesses going from surviving to thriving. We are prepared to do our part in 2021 with an appropriately bold series of proposals.”

The Montana Chamber’s top priorities for the 67th Legislature include:

* Passing reasonable COVID-19 liability protections for businesses, health care providers, manufacturers, schools, and more;

* Enhanced industry input in agency rulemaking, either with legislation or by executive-driven approaches;

* Advancing workforce development with targeted investments in career and technical education and by removing barriers for work-based learning programs that can help create a pipeline of qualified talent for Montana businesses.

The Montana Chamber’s 2021 legislative agenda was developed by several policy working groups comprised of member businesses with final approval given by the organization’s Board of Directors. Its legislative priorities align with Envision 2026, the Montana Chamber’s 10-year strategic plan for Montana’s future.

“Workforce development, business climate, infrastructure, and entrepreneurship are tall orders, but we have advanced these goals with each legislative session since debuting our strategic plan in 2016,” noted Paul Hopfauf, Director of Strategic Planning and Growth for Montana-Dakota Utilities, Co. and Chair of the Montana Chamber board of directors.

This year’s new Board Directors for the Montana Chamber began three-year terms October 28, 2020. They include: ——Brad Anderson, President of Anderson Management Group

—Tara Beam, Owner of the Roadhouse Diner

—Shane Etzwiler, President/CEO of the Great Falls Chamber of Commerce (1 year term)

—Christina Henderson, Executive Director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance

—Amy Kellogg, Owner of Simply406

—Ross Lane, Vice President of Corporate Relations for Montana Rail Link (MRL)

—Liz Marchi, Chief Community Officer for Two Bear Capital

—Ron O’Donnell, CIO of Stockman Bank of Montana

—Nancy Schlepp, VP of Communications and Corporate Secretary, for Sandfire Resources America, Inc.(SFR)

—Ron Slinger, President of Miles Community College

—Gary Wiens, CEO of Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association

The Center Square

More than 80 states and local municipalities are slated to see minimum wage hikes in 2021, even as business owners continue to struggle during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Employment Policies Institute, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., that studies how public policy impacts employment growth, released a comprehensive list of the minimum wage increases that will go into effect next year and in subsequent years.

At the beginning of 2021, Montana’s state minimum wage rate increased by a dime to $8.75 per hour. This is greater than the Federal Minimum Wage of $7.25. However, federal law requires a minimum wage of $10.95 be paid in all federal contracts.

 “Minimum wage increases are demonstrated to cause job losses even in times of economic health,” said Michael Saltsman, EPI’s managing director. “These states and local areas are increasing the cost of labor as businesses are dealing with forced closures or a drastic drop in revenue. Employers and employees will pay the price for these misguided good intentions.”

Starting Jan. 1, 2021, eight states will have a minimum wage of $12 an hour or higher, topped by California at $14. The others include Washington, Massachusetts, Colorado, Arizona, Maine, New Jersey and Oregon.

The five cities with the highest hourly minimum wages next year will be Emeryville, Calif., ($17); Seattle, Wash., ($16.69); SeaTac, Wash., ($16.57); Sunnyvale, Calif., ($16.30) and San Francisco ($16.22).

In addition, seven states (Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington) and 43 cities and counties will no longer allow employers to factor in a credit for tips when paying employees. Several states have also passed laws to gradually increase the minimum wage over a number of years to eventually reach $15 an hour.

In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that a national $15 minimum wage, something that unions have been demanding for years, would result in a loss of 1.3 million to 3.7 million jobs.

Economists at the University of Miami did an updated analysis in October that found a $15 minimum wage would mean a loss of 2 million jobs, with more than half coming from bars and restaurants.

Such job losses would be due to a number of factors, including employers reducing staff sizes and moving toward more automation, and fewer people eating out as menu prices rise to pay for the increased wages.

“Even before the pandemic, some of these markets that were experimenting with higher minimum wages were seeing a decrease in restaurant jobs,” Saltsman said. “With all of the shutdowns, a lot of places that were on the brink have been pushed over the edge.”

EPI notes that grocery store prices have remained relatively stable over the last five years, growing 3.8 percent. The cost of eating out during the same period grew 14.2 percent. Increasing menu prices to meet the $15 minimum wage mandate could then incentivize people to eat at home more often, thereby decreasing the ability of bars and restaurants to make up for rising labor costs.

Adam Liberty has been named President of the Billings Catholic Schools Foundation (BCSF). He will work closely with the Board of Directors to establish long-term goals, strategies, plans and policies and serve as a liaison between the BCSF, the Billings Catholic Schools and the community. He most recently served as the Vice President of Development for the Montana State University Billings Foundation.   Liberty earned his Masters of Public Administration from the University of Montana in Missoula in 2013. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and Political Science from Carroll College in Helena in 2010.

Bright n’ Beautiful, the Keep America Beautiful affiliate for Yellowstone County announced that it has recognized the Liberty & Vine Downtown Billings Cleanup team, headed by Amy and Jason Pawlowski, with its Community Star Award for 2020.

The annual award recognizes those who have made valuable contributions to the beauty and well-being of Billings and Yellowstone County.

Describing themselves as “true believers in the spirit of Billings,” Liberty & Vine Country Store owners, Amy and Jason Pawlowski, converted a 1914 brick warehouse into a downtown shopping destination on historic Montana Avenue in 2018. Last January, Amy posted a video on the store’s Facebook page showing a litter-strewn Montana Avenue, describing it as “shameful” and “embarrassing” for a community as proud as Billings.

Amy and Jason resolved to become part of the solution. They established a monthly Sunday morning litter clean up event, inviting other business owners and friends to join them. Over the last challenging year, they have carried on with litter cleanups; neighboring businesses sometimes taking the lead and other organizations contributing as sponsors.

“We do believe by relying on each other and working together, we can make a difference in Billings,” said Amy.

“We are happy to recognize Amy and Jason and the Liberty & Vine team as our shining 2020 Community Stars,” said Bright n’ Beautiful executive director Joanie Tooley. “They are determined to create a better Billings with their friendly, hands-on approach to downtown problems. We are blessed to have Amy and Jason and the Liberty & Vine crew working their magic in the Magic City and we support their ongoing efforts.”

Liberty & Vine Country Store is located at 2019 Montana Avenue. The unique and inviting store offers Montana made or grown products, general goods, home decor and antiques in a sunny and uplifting atmosphere.

To join the next Liberty & Vine Downtown Cleanup, meet in the parking lot on Sunday, February 7 at 8:00 am, clean up until 10:00 and stay for delicious refreshments. Visit Liberty & Vine Country Store on Facebook or or call 406-534-8667.