Letter Re: Development of Montana and Idaho Economies

Can you give me your thoughts on Montana and Idaho for business development, state of the state’s employment, state government’s interest in business development, general thoughts on state and personal wealth, state budget woes if any? I’m wondering would the government mentality in Montana would be inclined towards establishing world and nationally recognized things in some city center that would increase employment, tourism and their standing? (I’m thinking about Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, Buffalo Bill Center in Cody, Wyoming., and even that odd Rock n-Roll Museum in Seattle. Things like that…. Do they already think that way? Would there be state government incentives for such projects?

Thanks, – C.F.

JWR Replies: Montana is one of the few states that is presently not running up debts.  Idaho has some debt, but still nothing compared to California, Texas, or most of the states on the eastern seaboard. Both states have unobtrusive state governments that are pro-business.  The Montana state legislature only meets in alternating years, so it doesn’t breed career politicians. (I should mention that 2012 is the “off” year.) The budget priorities are roads and schools, rather than welfare and political correctness.

There are a few drawbacks to Montana: The state seems excessively beholden to Federal funding–particularly to Federal highway funds. (The same could be said for Idaho.) Montana also suffers from low property tax revenues, because so much land is Federally-owned (National Forest or BLM.)   A few Democrats still get elected, mainly because of tradition, since Montana was a major pro-union mining state before 1930. So there are a lot of vestigial pro-union sentiments, and misplaced multi-generational loyalty to the Democratic Party. But most Montana Democrats are extremely pro-gun, which makes them actually better suited to being Libertarians or Republicans. Some traditions just die hard.

There is a personal income tax in Montana, but it is fairly low (lower than Idaho’s), but there is no sales tax, which is an advantage.  But the state makes up for that lost revenue in part with fairly high car registration fees.  (About $150 per year for a typical four year-old car or truck.) In Idaho, annual registration is much less.

The gun laws are minimal in both states.  The speculation is that Vermont/Alaska/Arizona/Wyoming style permitless concealed carry will be enacted in both Idaho and Montana next year.  (In Montana, the Democrat governor vetoed this law last year, but, a veto-proof majority is expected when the bill is re-introduced in 2013.)  It is noteworthy that open carry is already legal in both states, as is permitless concealed carry outside of city limits.

A large number of gun and ammunition makers are moving to Montana and Idaho, particularly to the Bitterroot Valley and the Flathead Lake region. One of my favorite AR makers is in Kalispell, Montana. (Nemo was formerly called SI Defense.) Here at the ranch, we have several of their AR-15s and one of their AR-10s.

Idaho is definitely luring gun and ammo makers. Here is a recent news story.

Idaho and Montana are quite similar, but land prices are a bit higher in Northwest Montana, only because private land is so scarce.

I don’t know of many “magnet” venues that are specifically planned for Idaho or Montana.  The Charles M. Russell Museum in Great Falls is already big draw.  (There is actually traffic there, in the summer!)  Not quite Branson, but…

There could easily be state incentives for that sort of development.  If nothing else, the State tourism boards would give their full support.

Another thing to consider is that both states already have active state film boards, to encourage movie, commercial, and and music video productions in the states.  

Both states should encourage or partly sponsor film festivals (a la Sundance), and attempt to create tourism.  I believe that Idaho should latch onto “Extreme Sports and “Extreme Sports Films” as a centerpiece.  (For example, Warren Miller’s ski and snowboarding movies.)   Likewise, Montana should do the same for shooting and hunting.)

Snowmobiling, ATV riding, horseback riding, hunting, and all of the shooting sports are quite popular in both states. Either state could easily set up (and capitalize on) an endurance horseback riding championship, or a big Ironman sports event.  And I can’t believe that they don’t already play up the amazing (but under-publicized) “Ride the Divide” ultra endurance bike race. (That documentary movie is available via NetFlix streaming. It is quite a film.)

The Boomer Shoot could be publicized much better and a machinegun shoot and gun show like at Knob Creek should be added. One limiting factor is that there are no large convention centers in northern Idaho or Western Montana where a 3,000-table gun show could be held.

Another low-cost tourist lure would be music festivals. If Idaho or Montana wanted to magnify their tourist season, they could encourage/promote six big events over six successive weekends in June and July, all within a 200 mile radius.  I predict that the roads in the region would be packed with RVs each year.

For winter sports, someone in Idaho or Montana ought to consider creating the snowmobile equivalent of the Sturgis motorcycle rally. Why hasn’t anyone created the snowmobile equivalent of biathalon–perhaps with handguns? Snowmobiles and guns. You gotta love that.

There are lots of things that both states could do to encourage investment and tourism.  The scenic beauty in the Northern Rockies is almost overwhelming, but after living here for a few years, you get so used to it that the grandeur is is heart-stopping only when the lighting is “just right.”

Idaho already has a couple of “high tech incubator” projects, in conjunction with their universities, to lure (or foster new) high tech companies.  The same should formally be done for companies in the firearms industry. FWIW, I tried to encourage Dave Selvaggio to move DS Arms out west, but he balked.  I suppose that he is still too comfortable in the People’s Republic of Illinois.  Someday, he will, after the gun laws and high taxes reach the revulsion point.

In my opinion both states should declare themselves gun and ammo maker havens, by offering special tax incentives for the first five years after a company’s relocation.  They could really make headlines if they declared: “No corporate taxes and no employee state income tax for the first five years after relocation.” And Montana should capitalize on their “Made In Montana” guns law.

In summary, there is a lot of potential in Idaho and Montana. Granted, both of them are a long drive from any major population center, but of course their light population density is part of the appeal.