A look at the local economy - a four-part series

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Chris Hoge mans the Noxon Mercantile, a small grocery store being forced out of business due to a lack of customers.

Chris Hoge estimates around 50 people have left the town of Noxon in the past few years. With the loss of the timber industry due in large part to the nationwide housing bust beginning in 2007 and a delay in the construction of the proposed Rock Creek Mine near Noxon, Sanders County saw a dramatic reduction in the amount of jobs available. And it has killed his business.

Chris and Betty Hoge have operated the Noxon Mercantile, a small grocery store dating back almost one hundred years, since 1998. Hoge said since 2007 when the economy began to see a downturn across the United States, their sales are down almost 50 percent. Chris and Betty have decided they can no longer afford to operate the store.

The problem according to Chris is there simply are not any jobs for people in and around Noxon so people move to where the jobs are available. Chris said they are moving to North Dakota.

Under the ground in Northwestern North Dakota lies a massive rock structure known as the Bakken Formation that contains an estimated 18 billion barrels of crude oil. The area, discovered in 1951, lay untapped until 2008 when a new drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” made the site financially viable for oil companies to drill.

There are now more than 150 active oilrigs producing nearly 15 million barrels a month in North Dakota. Thousands of workers flooded the area, many coming from Montana and Sanders County according to Chris. North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate in the country.

“They had to go where the jobs are. We’ve lost so many people. I don’t know what’s going to be here in five years if we don’t get some jobs,” said Chris.

The other reason jobs are hard to find in Sanders County is the drastic reduction in demand for lumber due to the housing bust in the U.S. beginning in 2007. In 2006, the lumber industry in Montana employed 9,700 workers according to figures compiled by the Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research. In 2012, the number of workers employed had fallen by over 3,000.

Chris also cited the delay in constructing the proposed Rock Creek Mine that would have brought an estimated 300 jobs for 25 to 30 years to the immediate area according to Revett Minerals Inc., the company that owns the project. The venture is currently still in the permitting process. The Forest Service is in the process of preparing a supplemental environmental impact statement before the project can move forward.

“Part of the problem is we have a natural resource based economy in this county. The logging industry collapsed so unless we can get this mine to go in things will not get better. It’s going to come in, it’s just a matter of when. It sounds positive. I just don’t know if it’s going to be enough of a boost,” said Chris.

While unemployment in Montana is estimated to be 5.6 percent, the rate in Sanders County is around 14 percent according to the Associated Press Economic Stress Index. Between the oil boom in North Dakota, the lack of demand for Sanders County timber and the delay with the Rock Creek Mine, Chris and Betty decided they could not keep operating the Noxon Mercantile.

“We saw the economy taking a turn in 2007 and we thought we could ride it out. But without something to bring people to the area we can’t keep the store. We’d love to stay here but I have to work,” said Chris.

Chris and Betty will now face the same questions other residents of Noxon have had to answer. They do not know if they can stay here. They do not know if someone will take over the store or if it will close. They simply do not know what the future holds.

Chris ended by saying,“Hopefully there will be some changes. Hopefully there will be some job opportunities. It’s a heck of a nice place to live but I just don’t know if we will be able to stay here.”

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