Could the arrival of new businesses in Billings over the next year mean the creation of a thousand new jobs? Officials at Big Sky Economic Development believe that is entirely possible.
Jeremy Vannatta, EDA’s Director of Business Outreach and Recruitment, went through an impressive list of companies which have Billings in their sights, as they pursue some rather large expansion projects. “They are exciting projects,” said Vannatta, reflecting “the diversity of our industries.” “We are seeing the whole gamut,” he told members of a joint executive committee for Big Sky Economic Development Authority (EDA) and for the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC), at a meeting last Wednesday.
Look Who’s Coming
Two large distribution centers are looking at Billings, reported Vannatta. There is no space available in Billings large enough to meet their needs.
One has made an offer on land with plans to build a 30,000 to 50,000 square foot facility. They will employ 50 people and hope to make an announcement this spring, said Vannatta.
The other distribution center needs a 20,000 to 30,000 square foot facility. “They have chosen Billings as their location and have ramped up the size of their project after visiting here,” said Vannatta. They continue to work with local commercial real estate agents to find a site.
A manufacturer of an “energy-related product” is trying to decide whether to locate in Billings or in Canada. The company would need to build a 200,000 square foot plant, and would eventually employ some 80 people. Vannatta said that his conversations with the company about Billings indicate that “we are looking much more favorable.” They are not finding the workforce they need in Canada and the tax situation is more favorable in Montana.
A manufacturer of homes has already chosen Billings as a location, according to Vannatta. They have made an offer for space, and plan to employ 40 people the first year and 100 people by the end of their third year.
An “inbound call center” associated with the health care industry has narrowed their search for a new location, to Billings, Boise, Greeley and New Mexico, said Vannatta. They would employ 250 people and want to be “up and running” by June 1. Being able to meet that tight time line will have much to do about which community they select.
Billings lost another call center prospect, said Vannatta, because they thought our unemployment rate was too low, and they would not be able to find the employees they need.
A new health care facility is also looking at Billings, one which Vannatta said is “a very exciting project,” which will be taking advantage of a number of state incentives. They may announce their plans, yet, this spring, said Vannatta.
Bay Limited Makes Delivery
The glowing report was continued by EDA/EDC Director Steve Arveschoug, who announced that Bay Limited made their first delivery of equipment, on Feb. 19, to their Canadian customer. The delivery went off without a hitch, but did underscore the importance in the future of being able to create a route, free of barriers.
Bay Limited, which fabricates tanks and pipes, discovered “their travel through Montana was easy and uneventful,” said Arveschoug. They still had to raise utilities in a number of places, which is a costly process, and underscored the importance of finding a solution to moving large loads on public highways. The company and local government officials, including EDA, are working with the state and the Governor to find a way to permit such loads, which would reimburse the cost of making the needed improvements. It would be a process that would benefit all businesses which have large loads to move, an important consideration, since more such companies are expected to emerge.
Arveschoug said that Bay Limited is close to securing a second contract for their products, also in Canada. They are currently employing 75 people and expect to continue hiring, having early on said that they will eventually employ between 200 and 250 people.
Funding Sport Events
The Executive Committee members also discussed the effort to raise funds to supplement the community’s bid for sport events with the Montana High School Association. Arveschoug said he had “a frank and open discussion” with County Commissioner Jim Reno, who is insisting that to help subsidize bringing the sport events to Billings is part of EDA’s responsibility as an economic development agency, supported in part, by tax revenues.
Reno “believes strongly that the events are important to our economy,” said Arveschoug. There is no disagreement on that, he said, but there is disagreement as to whether EDA should play a role. EDA board members have pointed out that their primary mission is to recruit business and help existing businesses expand.
EDA has agreed, however, to help on a committee, joined by volunteers from the MetraPark Advisory Board, to raise funds from local businesses, which benefit from the money spent by visitors attending the events.
Metra Park bids for the events, and after years of absorbing losses, Yellowstone County Commissioners, who manage MetraPark, announced that they are henceforth going to bid the events “revenue neutral,” which means the bids will be higher than those of competing communities. That means there needs to be “backfill” to make Billings’ bids competitive.
Ed Workman, an EDA board member, noted that other communities such as Butte, have long done community fundraising to supplement their bids.
Reno has said that if EDA does not address the issue, he will vote to deduct the needed funds from EDA’s budget when the commissioners vote to approve the EDA budget.
The amount Metra loses because the High School Association will not allow them to charge the ticket improvement fees they charge at every other event, varies each year from $20,000 to $90,000, said Arveschoug.
Board member Gordon Tryon said, “They have factored in overhead costs. They have those costs whether they have a tournament or not. Is it a real loss or a paper loss?”
Rick Leuthold, EDC Chairman, said, “They are doing their paperwork shuffle, but the issue is, do we support the events?”
It was suggested that EDA should embrace the issue and raise the money; it will “put ourselves in a better light.”
Tryon said that supporting the tournaments really is within the realm of economic development and would be in keeping with EDAs over all purpose, he did question however whether the events really brought as much business to the community as the commissioners claimed.
It was pointed out that they really are being given little choice in the matter, since Reno has said he would vote to deduct the money from their budget should they not help raise the funds. Susan Riplett, EDC board member, pointed out that losing such funding would “cut programs important to our organization.”
“We are between a rock and a hard place,” said EDC Board Member Greg Kohn.
Arveschoug said that the committee is discussing hiring a contract staff person to coordinate the fundraising effort. The fundraising “needs to take on a life of its own,” he said.
The Committee talked further about its public image, saying that they do great things for the community. “We have a great story to tell, we are accountable to the taxpayer,” said Arveschoug.
Jeremy Vannatta pointed out that they leverage the $1,045,000 in tax revenue EDA receives, to gain $900,000 more each year in state and federal dollars.
Vannatta announced that EDA did get part of the grant for which they applied from the US Economic Development Agency. They will receive $25,000 of the $40,000 request, needed to help fund a target industry analysis, which will help in focusing EDA’s recruitment efforts for Billings. Century Link has agreed to donate the balance.
EDC will be advertising a vacancy on their staff to fill the position of Business Expansion Specialist.
EDC has hired Laura Gettings Carlson as the new Member Investor Coordinator. Arveschoug said that Carlson is from Glasgow, where she was a director for the hospital.
He said the position remains part time.
Deanna Langman-South has been hired to join the PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Center) staff, to replace Jason Porch.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103