Just because the U.S. economy is lagging doesn’t mean the same holds true in Yellowstone County.
Speakers at a Community Leadership meeting last Friday were mostly optimistic about prospects for the local economy, but Dave Irion of St. Vincent Healthcare said people here tend to become emotionally attached to what’s going on in the rest of the country. An effort is needed, he said, to foster a positive spirit and turn attitudes around.
It’s not surprising that community leaders would put the best possible face on how well they are doing their jobs, but about 50 representatives of business, nonprofit and government groups who met at the First Interstate Bank Operations Center had some reasons for optimism.
Tops on the list was the prospect for continued energy development. Steve Arveschoug, director of Big Sky Economic Development, said that Billings is the business hub of energy development not only in the Bakken oil fields but throughout the region. He said that Billings needs a large industrial park to compete with the business-friendly Western states.
“We need to be constantly evaluating strengths and weaknesses in the community,” he said.
Several speakers called for improved transportation in part to boost energy development. Billings City Administrator Tina Volek said the city is focused on downtown vehicle and rail traffic and the proposed inner belt loop. Parking is a related concern, she noted.
Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said the county is looking at the Northeast Bypass, which could ease traffic around MetraPark and could begin construction in six or seven years, and a connection between Bench Boulevard and Sixth Avenue North.
Lisa Harmon of the Downtown Billings Alliance said the Montana Avenue area is developing an urban neighborhood feel, and traffic on Montana Avenue needs to be “calmed” to enhance that feeling. She also said that downtown rail traffic creates both a perceived and a physical barrier downtown.
John Brewer of the Billings Chamber of Commerce cited goals that include increased tourist visitation, recruitment of sports events and an enhanced trail system.
Dan Carter of Montana State University Billings said local priorities include a $4 million science building. He said the change of name for the College of Technology to City College will be not just a name change but a change in how higher education does business here, noting the addition of a branch library and a 9-11 memorial.
Michael Mace, president of Rocky Mountain College, said he has worked to expand the Frontier Conference to 12 members, making it the largest conference in the NAIA. The college hopes to add lights to its football field, at a cost of $330,000, in part to add a venue for high school teams in the area, he said.
Not everything was flowers. Ms. Volek noted that federal revenues to the city of Billings are declining, and the city remains restricted by its charter from raising taxes without a vote of citizens. Mayor Tom Hanel said the recent decision to cancel one of two daily flights to Helena from Billings will have a negative impact.
Commissioner Ostlund said that commissioners are concerned about unfunded mandates and favor a loser-pays requirement in lawsuits. Jail overcrowding, with up to 450 inmates in a 270-bed jail, and $30 million in tax protests also are concerns, he said.
School board member Connie Wardell said schools in the next legislative session have the best opportunity in 20 years to get “almost adequate funding.”
The Chamber’s Bruce MacIntyre said Yellowstone County’s low unemployment rate may actually reduce the workforce as employers go elsewhere to find workers. He said Billings needs to work with smaller cities and rural communities on legislative initiatives.
“We’re the 800-pound gorilla when we go up to Helena,” he said, which can fuel resentment. Those attending the meeting agreed to meet again on Oct. 12 to plan legislative strategy.