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View above Billings, Montana. (Image: Wendy via Flickr)
View above Billings, Montana. (Image: Wendy via Flickr)

Billings is trying to grow an economy that reflects local values

In their own ways, Steve Arveschoug and Candi Millar are working to create a more thriving Billings.

It’s the job of Arveschoug, executive director of Big Sky Economic Development, to help grow the local economy — everything from helping to lure businesses to Billings to strengthening existing businesses to striving to develop local workforce skills in a tight labor market.

Millar, the city’s director of planning and community development, has been working more than a year on a proposed growth strategy for the city and Yellowstone County. She started by first listening to how and where residents want the community to grow and then, in work expected to last until next spring, crafting strategies to make that growth work in the smartest, most cost-effective way possible.

Those aren’t mutually exclusive goals, Millar said.

“We aren’t looking at hindering growth,” she said. “The growth policy recognizes that a livable city is in itself an economic engine.”

Workers in their 20s and 30s, she said, do a job search differently than their parents typically do: They look first for the city they want to live in, and then for a job that will make that happen.

“A community becomes more competitive economically if it’s livable, offering the amenities and real necessities like quality schools and a good transportation system,” Millar said. “The input we have received (during the growth policy process) is that as we grow we should add amenities and maintain the qualities we already have.”

Big Sky EDA’s consultant, ECONorthwest, paints a picture of a community well-positioned to continue growing in whatever ways residents choose. The analysis compares Billings’ current economy and its future prospects with those of eight other communities: Boise, Idaho; Fort Collins, Colo.; two Wyoming communities, Casper and Cheyenne; Bismarck, N.D., Rapid City, S.D., and Missoula and Great Falls.

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With a 3.6-percent increase in its gross domestic product from 2001-14, Billings ranks third, behind only Casper and Bismarck.

In educational attainment, Billings exceeds only Rapid City and Casper. But Arveschoug chalks that up to the nature of the local job market, where workers don’t in general need college training — trade school might be more appropriate. In fact, Billings ranks first among its peer cities in the percentage of workers who’ve attained at least a high school diploma.

At 2.8 percent in September, the city’s unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since it was at 2.7 percent in 2007. As compared to its peer cities, Billings’ employment share is second in education, health care and social services and fourth in retail trade.

With a $2.6 billion impact on the local economy, health care is the community’s fastest-growing sector, Arveschoug said.

“It’s a huge driver, and it will continue to grow as we get older,” he said. “It’s also one of our most acute labor needs.”

At nearly $30,000, Billings’ per capita income is almost $1,000 higher than that of the country as a whole and nearly $4,000 higher than the state’s. It ranks fourth among the peer cities, behind Bismarck, Casper and Fort Collins.

Despite those strong numbers, Arveschoug said he has concerns for some sectors, including businesses that supply companies operating in the Bakken as well as retailers who must compete for workers in a tight labor market.

But there’s more evidence for optimism, he said — a proposed $50 million investment in Billings Logan International Airport, infrastructure upgrades in the East Billings Urban Renewal District and plans for significant capital investment at both Rocky Mountain College and Montana State University Billings.

“My only caution is that we don’t take our foot off the pedal,” he said. “As we build infrastructure and add amenities, we will attract more talent and more businesses.”

Millar expects to complete the city/county growth policy in spring 2016.

“We are trying to show the consequences of different patterns of growth to our elected officials. In the end, we hope to develop statements that reflect the values we have heard and minimize the negative consequences of growth.”

This article was written by Mike Ferguson from Billings Gazette, Mont. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.