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New West Daily Roundup for July 11, 2016

Today in New West news: affordable airfare in Missoula, Facebook eyes Utah and New Mexico for data center, hiking the Kanarra Creek slot canyon, and Peabody Energy asks bankruptcy court permission to pay back property taxes in Colorado.

Missoula, Montana has been cited as one of the vanguards of the Montana tech sector, although there’s one hurdle the city has encountered time and time again in cultivating its tech scene: travel. Indeed, according to the Missoulian, the high cost of airfare has stymied Missoula tech—and by extension, Montana tech:

Tom Stergios, the general manager of Advanced Technology Group’s Missoula Solutions Center, doesn’t mince words when he expresses his frustration about the situation.

“The cost of flying in and out of Missoula is the single biggest challenge that we face in building a growing business in Montana,” he said.

His downtown Missoula office employs more than 60 people who tell some of the largest companies in the world how to better manage their customers and billing systems. Thirty-four of the firm’s staffers earn about $81,000, three times the county’s median wage.

Economic growth advocates want companies like ATG to expand here. That’s why it’s disturbing that the choke point comes not from the company’s business plan, but from the high cost of travelling in and out of town, which ATG consultants have to do often.

“For ATG, the problem is not the number of flights, number of carriers, or direct flights – rather it is the prohibitive cost of those flights, particularly Midwest and East Coast destinations,” Stergios explained. “We had dozens of flights to New York, Boston, and the Philadelphia area that averaged $800 to $1,000, often with advance notice.”

Christina Quick Henderson, executive director of the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, added that where airfare isn’t readily available, businesses are hindered and can’t readily compete with existing tech hubs—even in Montana. Bozeman, for instance, is a better draw for tech since Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport has more direct flights across the nation. Indeed, the airport recently unveiled nonstop service between Bozeman and San Jose, California through JetSuiteX. Some venture capital firms have expressed reservations at investing in Missoula tech, on the basis of airfare options. According to the Missoulian, however, change may be on the horizon:

Earlier this month, airport officials in Missoula learned they’ll be getting a $600,000 grant from the Small Community Air Service Development Program from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Cris Jensen, the director of the Missoula International Airport, said the money will go toward a revenue guarantee to attract an airline like United Airlines, which would fly to either Dallas/Fort Worth or Houston. The $600,000 will be matched with $400,000 from community backers and $200,000 from the airport for a total package of $1.2 million.

Besides giving Missoulians another direct route, the new connection will increase competition and potentially drive down prices.

Keeping with tech news, the Salt Lake Tribune reports Facebook might have an eye toward Utah and New Mexico for a new data center. Indeed, Rocky Mountain Power has reportedly “been diligently negotiating an agreement for several months” with the social media titan, with RMP going so far as to ask the Utah Public Service Commission for a new renewable-energy contract. Wherever Facebook decides to set up shop, utilities will have to provide them with 100 percent renewable energy according to RMP executive Paul Clements. From the Tribune:

Facebook spokeswoman Lindsay Amos wrote in an email that the company is “always evaluating potential new sites,” but that “we’re not committing to anything right now.”

“[I]t’s important to have all the information we need readily available — including our access to renewable energy,” she wrote. “By doing work upfront, we can move fast when we do need more capacity.”

Facebook data centers house the photos, videos and status updates shared by Facebook’s 1.65 billion users.

Rocky Mountain Power has a hearing with the commission on Aug. 18.

The Public Service Co. of New Mexico is seeking approval from its state regulators by Aug. 31, forgoing a public hearing to keep pace with Utah.

Included in Rocky Mountain Power’s filing is a 2014 economic analysis of what one utility executive described as a “similar” Facebook data center in Forest City, N.C., which estimates that the operation had added roughly $700 million to the state’s economy over three years, including construction. Other centers are located in Texas, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Sweden.

A representative of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development declined to comment.

The proposed location of Utah’s would-be data center was not immediately known.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that a New Mexico data center might be destined for Los Lunas, a village 25 miles southwest of Albuquerque, where the council last month approved up to $30 billion in industrial revenue bonds for a data center.

Keeping with Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, thousands of visitors from the U.S. and abroad are streaming to a canyon tucked away in Iron County—and the Bureau of Land Management is looking to get in on the action too.

Currently, visitors to Kanarraville (a 350-person town) are venturing out to a nearby slot canyon carved out by Kanarra Creek, accessible via a trailhead off Interstate 15. According to the Tribune, there’s nothing there for visitors besides a parking lot and the occasional lemonade stand. Residents are eager to come up with some manner of development, a desire complicated by the fact that the mouth of the canyon (comprising 41 acres) is private land.

Owner Blaine Webber, however, after a few attempts at setting up private housing or campground (and one attempt to charge hikers, although Iron County eventually prohibited this practice), has expressed interest in selling to the BLM. All fine and good, except for one complicating factor: the BLM is hoping to acquire Webber’s land through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is currently imperiled in Congress. From the Tribune:

Because Kanarra Creek offers such an accessible and inviting hike, with superb canyoneering opportunities, it will likely draw more and more visitors. BLM ownership of the canyon’s entrance would enable the agency to provide recreational amenities here, such as a campground and a picnic area, according to the environmental assessment.

The BLM is appraising the Webber property and a draft assessment is out for public comment through July 21.

For conservationists, the deal highlights the importance of the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a 50-year-old program that taps federal offshore mineral royalties to acquire national park and wilderness inholdings and other private lands with conservation and recreation values.

“It is the least known, but best-loved program the federal government has because everybody loves parks and access to those resources,” said Brian O’Donnell, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation.

Yet the LWCF remains chronically underfunded and came close to termination this year under pressure from Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who heads the House Natural Resources Committee. Congress wound up reauthorizing the fund, but only for three years and at half its full funding. At $450 million, this year’s appropriation is still a big increase over previous years.

Finally, over in Colorado, according to the Denver Business Journal, coal giant Peabody Energy Corp., which declared bankruptcy earlier this year, has asked the Bankruptcy Court permission to pay approximately $30 million in property taxes incurred at mines nationwide, most notably in Routt County, CO. Indeed, Peabody manages Twentymile Mine, the second largest coal mine in Colorado. Peabody is seeking permission to pay back taxes after the South Routt School District received $1 million in emergency funds; originally, the money was supposed to come from Peabody in the form of a tax.

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