Feb. 12--A revolving loan program in Columbia Falls has proven to be an effective economic development tool, investing $2.1 million in that city's businesses since it began in 2002.
Several Columbia Falls business owners who have benefited from the low-interest loans praised the program and shared their success stories at the Columbia Falls Chamber of Commerce lunch meeting on Tuesday.
The program is a collaborative effort between the city of Columbia Falls and Montana West Economic Development that grew out of a discussion between the City Council and Freedom Bank President Don Bennett about the need for local gap financing.
The city applies for the economic development loans through the Community Development Block program and Montana West administers the loans.
Gary Byers of Creative Sales received the first loan of $400,000 12 years ago for his business, which manufactures the Big Bobber floating cooler, a line of knife sharpeners and other products. He since has grown his company from 18 to 32 employees.
When Byers paid back his loan in just one year, the revolving loan fund was off and running. A total of $1 million initially was seeded in the program and $788,000 has been reloaned to other businesses.
Western Building Center secured a $250,000 loan to help finance construction of a truss plant that was planned just as the local construction boom was peaking in 2007. When the plant opened in mid-2008, it "fell off a cliff," Western Building President Doug Shanks said.
"We struggled to meet the goals of employment and we bounced along the bottom and hemorrhaged for years," he said. "Montana West was very understanding. They worked with us and we got through that tough period."
In May 2013, Western Building Center began to see a clear turnaround. The truss plant currently averages 36 employees with an annual payroll of just under $1 million.
After losing out on an $800,000 loan in 2012 because state officials shifted funding to other projects, Western Building later received a second loan of $400,000 for SmartLam, which manufactures cross-laminated timber and has found a huge niche for the building material in the Bakken oil fields.
Because of SmartLam's rapid growth, Western Building is planning to build a new truss plant to make room for the expanding SmartLam operations, Shanks said.
River Rock Hostel is among the Columbia Falls businesses that received funding through the second generation of revolving loans. Owners Greg and Mistie Fortin renovated a historic house in uptown Columbia Falls that dovetails with their other business, Glacier Adventure Guides.
"We're trying to dig in deep with this little bit of stimulus," Greg Fortin told the Chamber lunch crowd.
Outside Media, a marketing and public relations company that represents some of the top outdoor brands, likewise has benefited from a low-interest loan.
"Now we're making decisions on what can we do next, not can we afford it," said Shane Hutcheson, who owns the business with his wife, Hilary.
Outside Media recently purchased Trout TV, a network fly-fishing TV show for which Hilary Hutcheson is a co-host. The company employs 11 people, is hiring several new employees and could double its work force in the next year and a half.
"Having someone believe in you ... helps you become more inspired and want to grow," Hilary Hutcheson said.
Will Schmautz of Nomad Global Communications Solutions, yet another beneficiary of the Columbia Falls revolving loan fund, said Nomad now employs more than 90 people and is a front=runner for a big project for the National Guard that could add another 50 employees.
"We expect some great growth in the next year," Schmautz said.
Another success story came from Craig Ruch, who started Armor Anodizing about three years ago. Military-specification anodizing has created a big niche for him. His business has grown from three to 12 employees in the last eight months.
The loan program helped Cimarron Cafe and Catering, a longtime Columbia Falls business, restructure its debt load. The recession hit that business hard, owner Ray Negron said. The economic downturn plus a medical crisis a couple of years ago were challenging for the small business.
"We restructured and we're stronger for it," Negron said. "We're still here."
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at email@example.com.
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