WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Employment and housing struggles seem to be just about everywhere you look these days. Rural communities like White Sulphur Springs are no exception. In fact, one could argue that they may be even more hard-hit than larger towns in the state.
It is a reality Michele Walker, owner of the Branding Iron Cafe, knows all too well.
“And you just do all you can do. We've had to cut our hours because you can't find people. We used to be open from, we used to be open from 6:00 to 8:30 in the evening and then we cut back the hours a little bit, a little bit, and then not being able to have enough staff we ended up just doing one shift a day,” says Walker.
The labor market is so tight her husband left his job with benefits at the city in order to help out in the kitchen.
She says many of her former employees moved out of town after graduating from high school.
Walker is also competing with other industries which can offer higher pay and benefits, a growing concern with the expanding mining industry in the area.
And just like every major Montana city, there is a lack of housing.
“I can't advertise out of town because there's no place for anyone to be able to live. It's a major issue. We need housing here critically,” says Walker
The lack of affordable and available housing is an issue that Pattie Berg, president of the City Council, is keenly aware of, and it's one that affects every employer in the area.
Montana's Department of Environmental Quality approved the initial construction of the Black Butte Copper Project in August of last year.
The mine operators could bring in as many as 200 contractors during construction and the mine could employ more than 230 people once operational.
“We did a housing needs assessment; the city and the county went together and funded a housing needs assessment. And the demand for housing is in all income ranges. There's just not enough sticks out there for people to move into,” says Berg
The housing needs assessment says that the town will need anywhere from 17-61 homes in order to meet demand.
“The challenge is either in affordability or availability or a combination of the two," says Berg.
Berg says that the next step is for a Housing Action Plan, which will be put together by the Meagher County stewardship council.