CEDS Spotlight: Southeastern Montana Development Corporation

The Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) has the potential to be a true road map that brings together many voices from your region to form a common vision for economic prosperity and resilience.  Through the CEDS Spotlight case studies series, the NADO Research Foundation is highlighting best practices and innovative elements of CEDS planning, development, and implementation from EDDs and other regional development organizations across the country.

In the fall of 2015, staff at the Southeastern Montana Development Corporation (SEMDC) received a challenge from their constituents in the City of Colstrip:  help create an economic diversification plan to address the difficulties the region was facing as a result of the decline in the local coal industry.  Like many other coal-reliant communities throughout the country, Colstrip was feeling the economic effects reverberating from a mix of regulations, market forces, and the availability of cheap natural gas.

The call to action was especially prescient in light of an announcement made the following summer by Puget Sound Energy and Talen Energy that Units 1 and 2 at the Colstrip Power Plant would be shuttered by 2022.  The power plant (which also consists of Units 3 and 4), as well as the neighboring Rosebud Power Plant and Rosebud Coal Mine, provide around 800 jobs in southeastern Montana.  The decline of the coal industry and the closing of Units 1 and 2 will bring a loss of jobs and weaken the tax base, as well as threaten local pride and the sense of identity in this region of 24,000 people.

The 2015 meeting in Colstrip was one of seven “Town Input” public listening sessions that SEMDC staff conduct each year as part of the annual CEDS update process.  Staff organize these events in seven communities spanning the four counties that SEMDC serves to hear from residents and conduct an abbreviated SWOT analysis.  It was evident from that 2015 meeting that “the residents of Colstrip were very anxious about their future,” says Jim Atchison, executive director of SEMDC.

Units 1 and 2 at the Colstrip Power Plant are scheduled to close by 2022.  The power plant (which also consists of Units 3 and 4), as well as the neighboring Rosebud Power Plant and Rosebud Coal Mine, provide around 800 jobs in southeastern Montana. (Image courtesy Lori Shaw)
Units 1 and 2 at the Colstrip Power Plant are scheduled to close by 2022.  The power plant (which also consists of Units 3 and 4), as well as the neighboring Rosebud Power Plant and Rosebud Coal Mine, provide around 800 jobs in southeastern Montana. (Image courtesy Lori Shaw)

The following year SEMDC worked to assemble funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, the Montana Coal Board, and the Big Sky Trust Fund (a program of the Montana Department of Commerce) to conduct a study.  KLJ, a firm with extensive experience in the region, was brought in to partner with SEMDC and the City of Colstrip to lead public engagement efforts, conduct research, and deliver the diversification plan.  After a six-month process, the “Colstrip Economic Diversification Strategy” was released in May 2017 and identifies six goals with 17 strategies to support economic diversification and improved quality of life in Colstrip and the surrounding region.  The six focus areas are:  coal, energy, and renewable technology; high tech industry and entrepreneurship; manufacturing; high skilled labor with trades; agriculture and outdoor recreation/tourism; and quality of life.  The plan also seeks to leverage Colstrip’s local assets and competitive advantages, including its established industrial infrastructure, dedicated workforce, strong education system, and proximity to nature trails and a lake.

The plan notes the importance of taking a wide-reaching and inclusive approach to diversification: “There is no silver bullet when it comes to economic diversification. Diversification is a series of long-haul experiments to secure success through several ventures coming together to provide support and balance to one another.”

The plan has been incorporated into the region’s 2016-2020 CEDS and will be tracked in future updates.  “This strategy is a living document that provides an opportunity for this small community and our region to create its own future,” says Atchison.  In addition to the Colstrip Economic Diversification Strategy, a report from Coal Country Coalition is also incorporated into the CEDS as another guidepost for economic development to promote workforce development and diversification in Montana’s 15 coal-producing counties.  The Coal Country Coalition is a joint effort of SEMDC and three other regional development organizations in the state.

In the few months since the Colstrip Economic Development Diversification Strategy was released, it has already made an impact.  The region has received interest from companies across the country that are interested in developing operations in Colstrip area.  These companies include those in the energy, data storage, and construction service industries.  Additionally, progress has been made on the effort to provide more broadband services – identified as the community’s top priority during the public engagement sessions – with the announcement that the Range Telephone Cooperative is adding additional broadband services to businesses, retail, and residential locations.

Despite the economic obstacles facing Colstrip with shifts in the coal industry, Jim Atchison is optimistic.  “This is a tremendous opportunity for our region as we envision Colstrip in the future as a tech and innovation hub not just for energy, but also for other industries such as light manufacturing,” he says.  “We all realize that coal and energy will continue to play a significant role in Colstrip and to the benefit of Montana and are excited about meeting that challenge.”

The Colstrip Economic Diversification Strategy, incorporated into SEMDC's CEDS, was released in May 2017 and identifies six goals with 17 strategies to support economic diversification and improved quality of life in Colstrip and the surrounding region.
The Colstrip Economic Diversification Strategy, incorporated into SEMDC’s CEDS, was released in May 2017 and identifies six goals with 17 strategies to support economic diversification and improved quality of life in Colstrip and the surrounding region.

An interview with Jim Atchison, Executive Director, Southeastern Montana Development Corporation

What does the CEDS mean to your region? How has it helped shape the conversation about regional economic development?

SEMDC is the only regional entity and economic development group in our four-county region which means four counties and seven communities are all at the same Board table.  The SEMDC CEDS is the only regional economic development planning document within our region besides another SEMDC document, the Infrastructure Needs List.  The CEDS is a significant asset to the public sector, especially relating to coal, power generation, and natural resource development issues and concerns.  The CEDS Action Chart is reviewed on a quarterly basis at the SEMDC Board Meetings.  Staff do review and evaluate the Action Plan plus our community specific CEDS Town Input Recaps with our individual nine members on an on-going basis.

How have you incorporated the concept of resilience into your CEDS?

Over the years, SEMDC has cultivated a routine of conducting Annual CEDS Town Input Sessions.  The result of this habit is the Annual CEDS Community Recaps (seven in the SEMDC service region) which most civic, business, and community leaders have come to recognize as productive and usable planning documents.  The local media also loves this stuff as it’s an easy news article and can hold leaders, including SEMDC, responsible for acting upon certain opportunities.

What ways have you developed and nurtured partnerships with both traditional partners and underrepresented groups?

SEMDC has encouraged partnerships and collaboration among many groups in eastern Montana.  This is an on-going challenge and thus SEMDC is constantly nurturing new people on our Board or other groups.  Our feeling is that none of us have enough time, people, or funding to do what we need to do so we have to work together to leverage these scarce resources in order to survive.  Currently, SEMDC is part of at least five economic development coalitions.  The CEDS has also opened up doors with other groups that normally would not communicate often with SEMDC or other public and private sector groups.

How have you taken your CEDS process from planning to implementation? Any strong examples?

At SEMDC, the CEDS process starts out with the completion and approval of our Five Year CEDS Revision.  We then create an Annual CEDS / EDA Report during the off years.  Thus, we keep the CEDS on-track during the five year term.  Without annual updates, it’s very easy to lose focus.  During the Annual CEDS Report process, we meet in all seven SEMDC communities and create a specific Community Recap for each community for that year.  When finalized, all Recaps are shared with appropriate stakeholders who can then decide how best to move opportunities forward.  While SEMDC is not the sole party to get things done, we certainly assist the stakeholders in the process and serve as a catalyst.  This assistance can come in many different forms.

Three success stories to emerge from the CEDS include efforts in Colstrip, Miles City, and Ashland.  Early in 2002, an idea came out of the Colstrip Town Input meeting to find a way to create a much needed clothing store.  Eventually, the Got Socks Cooperative was formed with 120 shareholders who started the Got Socks Clothing store.  This cooperative / community clothing store was operational for over 10 years and the source of much community pride.

Miles Community College (MCC) located in Miles City also used the CEDS process to highlight their need for additional space for their Heavy Equipment and CDL programs to expand.  These popular programs are intended to train students and help bridge the employment gap with regional heavy equipment, transportation, and construction operations.  In order to purchase and remodel the former Armory site / building in Miles City, MCC teamed up with SEMDC to identify, structure, and secure funding for the purchase.  SEMDC provided grant research, structuring assistance, and the submission of four of the grants needed to secure $1.4 million of the nearly $1.8 million dollar project which today is called the MCC Workforce Readiness Center.  Related to this, SEMDC has provided scholarship funds for the past 13 years to the MCC Heavy Equipment Program.  These funds are generated from the Annual SEMDC Energy Open Conference and Golf Tournament.

During the Ashland community input meeting a few years ago, it was noted that a specific public safety hazard was present in this unincorporated community in southern Rosebud County.  State Highway 212 goes right through Ashland and moves a significant amount of traffic volume including a high percentage of semi-tractor trailer trucks.  Even though the speed limit is 25 MPH, the community had no street or highway lighting and was deemed unsafe at night.  This was noted and incorporated in the Ashland CEDS Recap that SEMDC created.  This recap was shared with the Rosebud County Commissioners and the MT Department of Transportation.  During the summer of 2017, as SEMDC was traveling to Ashland to conduct their 2017 CEDS Town Input Session, we noticed about 35 street light towers being installed.

All three of these success stories came as the result of the SEMDC CEDS Town Input Sessions held over the past few years.

Click to download SEMDC's 2016-2020 CEDS
Click to download SEMDC’s 2016-2020 CEDS
  • View the Southeastern Montana Development Commission’s 2016-2020 CEDS here.
  • View the Colstrip Economic Diversification Strategy here.
  • Want to learn more about this CEDS?  Contact Jim Atchison, Executive Director, at [email protected]

Click here to access additional case studies in the CEDS Spotlight series

Do you have a best practice or innovative approach to developing, designing, and implementing the CEDS?  Contact NADO RF Program Manager Brett Schwartz at  [email protected].

This case studies series is presented through NADO’s Stronger CEDS, Stronger Regions program, funded through a generous grant from the US Economic Development Administration.

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Regional Development Researcher Andrew Coker joined the NADO team in March of 2023 after spending two and a half years as the Regional Economic Resiliency Coordinator at West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District. Andrew holds a bachelor’s degree from Hendrix College and a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

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Joe McKinney serves as Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO). Headquartered in Washington DC, NADO provides advocacy, education, research, and training for the nation’s 500+ regional planning and development organizations.

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