Busy Destination

Local economic development experts estimate 3 percent of area business will not survive this spring’s COVID-19 shutdown, but they are poised to offer assistance to those who need help recovering – especially in Belgrade – as life in Montana slowly returns to normal.

“We’re particularly looking for companies in the Belgrade area,” Rob Gilmore, executive director of the Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District, told the Belgrade News this week. “We’ve got a mandate to make sure no one falls through the cracks.”

According to figures released by the Small Business Administration (SBA) this week, more than 22,000 businesses in Montana have received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and billions of dollars more are still available. Businesses adversely affected by the pandemic also may apply for assistance through the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Both programs were funded by the federal CARES Act.

While many local businesses have applied for assistance from those programs through the SBA or their banks, Gilmore said those approaches haven’t always been successful.

“Some people don’t have those relationships (with a bank) and won’t have luck going directly to SBA,” he said. He urged business people still seeking assistance to contact his office or the Prospera Business Network for an assessment of their situation and help in applying for assistance.

Shortly after local businesses were shuttered back in March, the city of Belgrade quickly decided to make more than $1 million in revolving loan fund money available to local enterprises adversely affected by the shutdown.

“We absolutely don’t want to empty our Main Street or any other street in Belgrade of businesses,” City Manager Ted Barkley said then.

Nearly three months later, as Montana has entered Phase 2 of Gov. Steve Bullock’s reopening plan, those city funds remain untouched because federal economic aid for businesses is still available, Barkley said. The city is drafting a policy to enable expediting assistance if other sources of government money run out, but for now “we don’t want to duplicate resources by using city resources,” Barkley said. “We’re feeling pretty good about the resources that are out there.”

Wade Pehl, a banker at First Interstate Bank and president of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce board, agreed the needs of Belgrade businesses are currently being met by other sources. He said banks were “swamped” with businesses seeking federal assistance loans between early April and mid-May, but that activity has tailed off. Right now, bank customers are asking about when and how to apply for forgiveness of the PPP loans, and he suggested seeking advice before applying because the rules continue to be modified.

Pehl, Barkley and Kristi Gee, executive director of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, agree that Belgrade businesses appear to be weathering the financial downturn reasonably well, but “we also know we’re not through this yet,” Gee said.

“As they get back into business and start opening, the (revenue) numbers are going to be really soft,” Gee predicted. In some cases, she said, “the (reduced) amount of business they’re doing isn’t going to be able to pay the bills.”

Gee said she already is hearing that businesses catering to tourists are likely to be particularly hard hit, as travelers from out of state may be reluctant to take trips this year.

With that in mind, the Belgrade Convention and Visitors Bureau has decided to market the area’s attributes to in-state residents who may be looking for places to visit not too far from home.

“We feel like that’s going to be extremely beneficial because people don’t want to fly yet,” Gee said.

The CVB’s marketing campaign also will extend into the Dakotas, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Washington in hopes of attracting visitors within driving distance.

“We feel like this year, for tourism, there will be a lot of in-person travel,” Gee said. “We’re really trying to market Belgrade as a safe place where we take cleanliness seriously, and we really want you coming if you’re safe and healthy.”

Brian Sprenger, director of the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, said it makes sense for the CVB and tourist-related 

businesses to cater to travelers within a 500-mile radius this year.

While more travelers are passing through Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport than in the earliest phases of the COVID-19 crisis, Sprenger said he doesn’t expect things to return to normal for many months to come.

“As a society, we’re being cautious,” he said. “In addition to actual flying, people are equally concerned about venturing too far from home.”

Sprenger said air passenger traffic was 3.1 percent of normal in April, and 10.8 percent of normal in May.

“Looking forward into June, we’re projecting probably 18 to 20 percent of normal. For July, our best projection is 30 to 35 percent of normal,” he said. “The trend is positive and upward, but still significantly lower than the record numbers we saw in 2019.”

More than 1.5 million passengers passed through Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in 2019, an increase of 17.3 percent over 2018. Airport administrators now predict passenger traffic may come within 10-15 percent of 2019 volumes by the end of this year, but isn’t likely to go much higher than that through 2021.

“We are seeing a recovery, no doubt about that, but it’s a slow recovery,” Sprenger said.

The airport statistics may not portend bad news for the local tourism industry this summer, however. Sprenger noted that 90 percent of people who come to Montana to vacation in the summertime historically have come by automobile.

“This year in particular, that will be the most effective way,” he said.