- Associated Press - Saturday, March 26, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - When North Carolina’s governor signed a measure blocking its largest city from enacting an anti-discrimination law, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock tweeted out a message from across the plains: “Dear North Carolina: We’re open for business …for everyone. Sincerely Montana.”

The tweet not only affirmed the Democratic governor’s support of gay and lesbian rights, but it also underscored - albeit cheekily - his administration’s efforts to draw attention from investors and entrepreneurs.

Bullock’s tweet, which has been shared more than a thousand times across the Internet, was followed by the hashtag #ChooseMontana.

Montana isn’t always an obvious choice.

In fact, the state’s old catchphrase - Why Montana? - seemed to reinforce that. That’s why Bullock’s team abandoned the slogan for a more assertive one.

“We wanted something more positive, more active,” said Dan Lloyd, a business development specialist within the governor’s office.

The governor’s economic team is betting that it can use the state’s tree-covered mountains, fishing holes and quaint, pedestrian-friendly towns as lures for economic development.

At trade shows in Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area and as far away as Philadelphia, state officials advertise the Big Sky State as a place for big opportunities.

There are things that Montana can’t offer, said Chris Mehl, the policy director of the Headwaters Economics in Bozeman.

“But a lot of negative perceptions have been erased by time,” he said. “The perception was that Montana was rural and isolated.”

Technology has removed many of the barriers that kept the rural state less connected with the global economy, Mehl said.

Headframe Spirits, a distillery in Butte, has been helping spread the word about Montana in its shipments to liquor brokers and distributors.

“I think it’s our duty,” said Cassandra Sunell, the company’s chief marketing officer.

The company inserts stickers, state-branded thumb drives or state-supplied promotional cards in its shipments to help advertise the Treasure State.

“We are champions and cheerleaders of Montana,” Sunell said. “We see so much potential in what can happen here in Butte and in Montana as a whole. Sometimes, we don’t do enough telling our stories about how great Montana is.”

Bullock’s tweet, written by a communications staffer on the governor’s behalf, was of course as much political as it was economic. Bullock is attempting to define contrasts between his policies and those of Republicans, not only in North Carolina but closer to home.

The economy is expected to be a central issue in Bullock’s re-election campaign against Republican Greg Gianforte.

Gianforte has criticized Bullock for the state’s low wages and the number of recent graduates who flee the state for jobs elsewhere.

Bullock, however, says that his economic programs have boosted the economy.

He frequently boasts about his state’s unemployment rate being roughly a point below the national average, low energy costs and a business climate that is creating high-tech jobs.

The Kauffman Foundation, a Missouri philanthropy focused on entrepreneurship, has ranked Montana first for the past three years as the state with the highest startup activity - even though it, the foundation said, “has not been widely known as a leading hotbed in the United States for entrepreneurial fertility.”

It’s a matter of highlighting the state’s workforce, business climate and quality of life, said Andy Shirtliff, the governor’s ombudsman for small business. “How do we keep (business) here, how do we grow it here, and how do we bring more?”

It’s unclear how much success Montana has had in luring outside businesses.

Bullock didn’t miss an opportunity with his tweet.

Some companies with North Carolina ties are reportedly evaluating the political climate in the Tar Heel State after Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed into law a bill that halts an anti-discrimination ordinance from going into effect in Charlotte.

Bozeman, Butte, Helena and Missoula have similar nondiscrimination laws. In January, Bullock signed an order prohibiting discrimination against state employees and contractors because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

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