By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – For the first time in its 25-year history, the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region summit was held in Montana, and Big Sky Resort played host.

From July 12-16 the resort hosted more than 500 public- and private-sector leaders from five U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. The summit addressed the challenges and successes of economic partnerships across state, provincial and federal borders, and included 23 working groups and more than 160 speakers on topics ranging from cyber security to agriculture, and from energy issues to mining and tourism.

A nonprofit formed in 1991, PNWER’s mission is: “to increase the economic well-being and quality of life for all citizens of the region, while maintaining and enhancing our natural environment,” according to its website.

Big Sky was an ideal setting for the organization’s first summit in Montana, said PNWER Program Coordinator Jennifer Grosman.

“The resort is providing a truly Montana experience,” Grosman said. “When we broached the topic of having our meeting in Montana, Big Sky was on top of the list for both the legislators and business community.”

Keynote speakers included Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester, Rep. Ryan Zinke, U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman, and Gov. Steve Bullock. On July 13, Big Sky Resort’s vast Missouri Ballroom was filled for the keynote luncheon featuring Bullock and University of Montana President Royce Engstrom.

“I’m happy to see PNWER embracing higher education,” Engstrom said, noting the strong relationship between Montana’s university system and its business community. He told the audience that he’s worked with the governor to keep college tuitions flat, and Montana is a national model with, “the lowest tuition increases in the last 10 years.”

Engstrom also described successful partnerships between UM and the business community, including Rivertop Renewables, a sustainable chemical company in Missoula with 32 employees.

Bullock opened his address by telling the crowd he attended last year’s PNWER summit in Whistler, British Columbia, and advocated for Montana as this summer’s host.

The governor said state and provincial partnerships are more effective when “we can focus less on these arbitrary borders and think regionally.”

He discussed his Main Street Montana Project, noting that education and skills training are at the core of the state’s economic opportunities, and spoke to the power of open dialog between the private sector and state government to create more certainty and predictability in the regulatory process.

“Montana has abundant natural resources. Effectively using those resources takes partnership,” Bullock said, pointing to the success of the Sage Grouse Conservation Program. “In Montana we are good stewards of our environment and wildlife. We came together to keep [sage grouse] management in Montana, not elsewhere like Washington D.C.”

Bullock spoke about marketing Montana, a state with 1 million residents and with 11 million visitors per year that have a $4 billion impact on the state’s economy. But he also stressed the importance of marketing to businesses, and how one-third of Montana’s trade occurs with Canada.

“Innovation has become a buzzword,” the governor said. “We need to make sure those knowledge-based industries are settling in our states, provinces, territories and regions.”

Bullock concluded by thanking the staff of PNWER for their effort to get 500-plus people from around the region to Big Sky. He also took a friendly jab at PNWER that the audience received with a collective laugh.

“Thanks for giving Montana the opportunity to host – [after] 25 years – our first summit.”