4:17am

Sun November 13, 2011
Hard Times: A Journey Across America

Big Sky Country Has Lots Of Room For Optimism

Part of a monthlong series

In Billings, Mont., the land of the "Big Sky," there aren't many clouds. A city of about 100,000 people between Denver and Calgary, Billings is weathering the economic storm better than many other communities in this country.

You can hear the sense of optimism at the weekly luncheon of the Billings Rotary Club. People there are relieved that Billings itself is being spared from the ravages of the economic crisis. The unemployment rate here is around 5.5 percent, far lower than the national average.

"This recession did not leave us unscathed," says Rick Leuthold, chairman of Sanderson Stewart, a land development firm. "However, we are very blessed to be here in a region that has such an abundance of natural resources."

Like many businesses here in Billings, Leuthold's company has a piece of the action in Williston, a small town about a 5 1/2-hour drive away in North Dakota. Williston is 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.

"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 gold rush here of this decade," Leuthold says.

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.

Not Just Oil

"It's not just natural resources," says Steve Arveschoug, the executive director of the Big Sky Economic Development.

He says Billings' diversified economy has been growing slowly but consistently 1.5 to 2 percent in the recent decade.

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

It shows 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 has a name for the three story-high atrium, which is flooded with natural light.

"We want to create an environment that we call a healing environment," he says. "It's how rooms are set up for inpatients; [it's] 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."

But people aren't just coming to Billings for health care. Many are traveling across the country to come here to find work.

In the Elysian Elementary School gym, about 50 people of all ages are learning Western swing dance steps. One of the dance students is 29-year-old Verite Thalen, a college-educated nanny who came to Billings from Oregon, where she says most of her friends are looking for work.

Thalen tells her friends Billings is the place for them.

"I'm 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,'" she says.

Thalen says she knows there will be work for her friends because everywhere she goes there are always "help wanted" signs up — at restaurants, retail stores, even banks.

And 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 Billings isn't on a spending spree. People in Montana are famously tight-fisted, which explains why there is no sales tax in the state. And a local bond vote to build a new $16 million library was no slam dunk.

Last week the supporters of the library bond campaign gathered in a downtown sports bar to await the election results. The 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.

When the results were announced and the library bond was approved by 57 percent of voters, the bar erupted.

Evelyn Noennig, the Billings Library Foundation president, helped organize the library initiative and was involved in a $5 million fundraising effort for the project. She was overjoyed. "This is the best day of my life," she said at the celebration.

When asked how Billings is able to build a new library at a time when so many other communities across this country are laying off librarians, teachers, firefighters and police officers, Noennig said, "Billings has a wonderful cross-section of people who believe in our city. It's just a great day here in Billings."

And from nearly every indication, it could stay that way for quite a while.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.