Big Sky Country Has Lots Of Room For Optimism Billings, Mont., has its share of natural resources. But residents attribute their ability to weather the economic storm to a diversification of services beyond oil — like agriculture, financial services and health care. "It's just a great day here in Billings," says a leader of a new library project.

Big Sky Country Has Lots Of Room For Optimism

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Now, heading west to Billings, Montana. We've been sending our reporters across the country to hear the stories about hard times in America. However, in Billings, the land of the big sky, there aren't many clouds. Billings, a city of more than 100,000 people, between Denver and Calgary, is weathering the economic storm better than many other communities in the country. NPR's Richard Gonzales has the story.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: The weekly luncheon of a Billings Rotary Club begins with a solemn prayer:

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Specifically, we pray for those without jobs in our country and those who are new in the job market, that they can find the opportunities to support themselves and their families.

GONZALES: There's also a palpable sense of optimism and relief that Billings itself is being spared from the ravages of the economic crisis. The unemployment rate here is about 5.5 percent, far lower than the national average.

RICK LEUTHOLD: This recession did not leave us unscathed. However, we are very blessed to be here in a region that has such an abundance of natural resources.

GONZALES: Rick Leuthold is a chairman of Sanderson Stewart, a land-development firm. Like many businesses here in Billings, his company has a piece of the action in Williston, a small town about five and a half-hour's drive away, in North Dakota. It's ground zero for one of the biggest oil plays in American history. And that's just part of the natural resource boom in this region.

LEUTHOLD: A lot of people will reflect on what's happening in North Dakota, in Wyoming, in Colorado, over into Utah, with the natural resource play as the current gold rush, as the gold rush here of this decade, so...

GONZALES: But a boom is always followed by a bust. And history has taught the people of Billings not to place all of their chips on oil.

STEVE ARVESCHOUG: It's not just natural resources.

GONZALES: Steve Arveschoug is the executive director of Big Sky Economic Development. He says Billings' diversified economy has been growing slowly but consistently, 1.5 to 2 percent in the recent decade.

ARVESCHOUG: We're a regional trade center. We're an agricultural hub; our financial-services sector is strong. We're a regional center for health care, and we're doing state-of-the-art health-care delivery here.

GONZALES: You'll see what he means when you walk into the atrium of the Billings Clinic. It's a nationally recognized hospital known for its clinical quality, patient safety and service. A soothing piano greets patients and visitors. Doctor and CEO Nicholas Wolter walks us through the three-story-high atrium, which is flooded with natural light.

DR. NICHOLAS WOLTER: We want to create an environment that we call a healing environment. It's how rooms are set up for inpatients; the hallways, it's art. We would like to provide services at a level of excellence that otherwise would require people to travel across the country.

GONZALES: Yet people are traveling across the country to come here to Billings, to find work.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: One, two, three and four.

GONZALES: In a school gym, about 50 people of all ages are learning Western swing dance steps. And it's here we meet 29-year-old Verite Thalen. She's a college-educated nanny who came to Billings from Oregon, where she says most of her friends are looking for work.

VERITE THALEN: And I'm like, always like, just move to Billings. A, you're my friend and I miss you; and B, there's a job here waiting for you, I promise. I know that because everywhere I go, there's always help-wanted signs up. There's help-wanted signs on restaurants; there's help-wanted signs in retail stores. Banks even have help-wanted signs up.

GONZALES: Billings has about $150 million worth of public and private construction ongoing or on the boards, including what will be one of the largest sporting goods stores in the world. But it's not like the city is on a spending spree. People in Montana are famously tight-fisted, which explains why there is no sales tax and also, why a local bond vote to build a new, $16 million library was no slam dunk.


GONZALES: Last week, the supporters of the library bond campaign gathered in a downtown sports bar to await the election results. The library bond failed nine years ago, but the crowd felt that this time things would be different because there's a growing sense that Billings is on the move. So when the results were announced and the library bond was approved by 57 percent of voters, the bar erupted.

EVELYN NOENNIG: My name's Evelyn Noennig, and this is the best day of my life.

GONZALES: Evelyn Noennig is Billings Library Foundation president.

How do you explain that Billings is going to build a new library at a time when so many other communities across this country are laying off librarians - and teachers and firefighters and police officers?

NOENNIG: Billings has a wonderful cross-section of people who believe in our city. It's just a great day here in Billings.

GONZALES: And from nearly every indication, it could stay that way in Billings for quite a while. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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