The regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Region VIII was in Miles City last week to address housing concerns in eastern Montana in the wake of the current energy boom.

Serving as a co-host for the Eastern Montana Development Forum held at Miles Community College, HUD Administrator Rick Garcia addressed the housing shortage and community development challenges due to the large influx of energy workers to the region and the lack of local, affordable housing.

“Workforce development and housing were the two main themes of the forum,” Garcia said. “HUD being one of the federal government’s lead agencies on national housing policy and the work we’ve done, it seemed like a natural opportunity. Forums such as these give us an idea of what HUD can do to help address issues facing residents and constituents in eastern Montana.”

The forum brought together leaders from federal, state and local entities, as well as representatives from the Montana University System. Several pertinent issues were addressed, including building reliable workforces with the aid of schools such as MCC and brainstorming ideas for infrastructure improvements and housing.

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., also introduced the the Eastern Montana Energy Workforce Development Initiative, designed to provide Montanans with the training needed to fill the approximately 18,000 jobs currently available in the Bakken oil fields. As it now stands, many energy companies operating in Montana rely on workers trained at out-of-state facilities.

“We appreciate all that Sen. Baucus is doing for eastern Montana,” said MCC President Stefani Hicswa. “In order for MCC to address the emerging workforce training needs in the Bakken, it is imperative that industry is aware of all that we can do to assist in matching trained workers with the job opportunities. This initiative is one more example of how Max listens to our needs and responds to eastern Montana.”

Region VIII, which Garcia represents, encompasses six states and is the largest geographic region in the country; it’s also the least populated. Meetings like the Eastern Montana Development Forum have proved to be a valuable asset in assisting HUD work with these areas.

“What I hoped to leave with the participants of the conference was the fact that HUD is not just an urban development agency of the government, one that deals with urbanized areas,” Garcia said. “I tried to impart on the group the range of programs and resources HUD has invested in small towns and communities across the country, here in Region VIII specifically.”

Garcia hopes the different companies and communities represented will take this information and work carefully with other funding partners like the State of Montana and the Department of Commerce to explore all resource avenues.

“The goal here was to start putting in place information about resources,” he said. “That we can start addressing the longer term needs, like affordable and market-rate housing. On a long-term basis, there are local needs for towns and cities to be able to upgrade their water and sewer systems, utilities, other kind of needs related to infrastructure. 

“Once that’s in place, a lot of our HUD programs can begin to help developers get the financing they need to begin,” he said. “We at HUD want to be an advocate and a partner with these local towns and communities, maybe advising and making suggestions on how some of our program dollars could be used perhaps more creatively and innovatively to address the needs in eastern Montana.”

As Montana’s representatives in the federal government continue to work for additional funding during a deficit-laden economy, Garcia said he encourages citizens and leaders in the communities most affected by the energy boom to continue to take an active role in achieving their goals.