Air Access Is a Big Deal for Rural Montana

For rural communities, access to well-connected airports is vital for economic development.

Zellner’s experience underscores what economists and civic boosters alike say is a key piece of the economic development puzzle in rural Montana communities: The access that well-connected airports give residents to the rest of the world.

“In spite of the Internet access, we still need to see each other face-to-face,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman. “And that’s what airports represent.”

….“If I was king of Montana and I wanted to do something useful in eastern Montana, I would put a big airport there,” said Rasker, who has published research arguing that air access to major urban centers explains much of the difference between rural counties in the American West that have performed well in economic terms and those that have struggled in recent decades.

Rasker and his co-authors say that amenities like public lands make many places in the rural West attractive destinations for knowledge-based workers — people like the Zellners — but that airport access is often a limiting factor.

Their analysis found that Western counties closer to airports with several commercial flights a day generally had higher per-capita incomes and more diverse economies. In contrast to more isolated rural areas, they said, those “connected” rural counties were behaving in economic terms more like cities.