Local economy leads state in growth

By WILLIAM NEVILLE/Montana State News

Montana has the 13th fastest growing economy in the nation, according the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana. And 35 percent of the state’s economic growth comes from Gallatin County, with tourism being a strong component.

Out of the $666 million in out-of-state spending, almost half is making its way into the Bozeman area, from the downtown businesses to Yellowstone Park region and the Bridger Bowl and Big Sky Ski Resorts.

Although Bozeman is at the forefront of the state’s economic progression, other Montana cities are also experiencing positive economic growth, according to the bureau. Overall, GDP in Montana expanded by 4.5 percent in 2013. Montana’s largest cities are contributing to the state’s rapid economic growth, however, their drivers are starkly different.

According to the bureau, Billings is Montana’s only city to surpass 100,000 people. The city is an economic and medical hub for the state, with a trade area that serves a vast geographic area of over 350,000 people. Though the city’s biggest employer is Billings Clinic, with an estimated workforce of about 3,500 people, the city is an energy center that has refineries from some of the country’s most profitable oil and gas companies.

Tourism also plays a factor in driving Billings’s economy during the summer months, as it’s a stop on I-90 and Highway 212 to Yellowstone National Park and through I-94 onto Sturgis, S.D. In 2009, Fortune Small Business featured Billings as the best small city in the nation to launch a new business.

Missoula is the second biggest city in Montana, as well as one of the fastest growing. Its flagship university is the largest employer in Missoula, as it encompasses about five percent of the city’s workforce. The U.S. Forest Service is also one of the city’s biggest employers.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Missoula is a regional economic center for Western Montana that serves over 300,000 people. A Missoula-based nonprofit organization, the Missoula Economic Partnership, has helped increased entrepreneurship throughout the city by creating over 900 jobs and over $120 million in capital investment to Missoula County.

During the heyday of Malmstrom AFB, 10th Street Southwest in Great Falls was the busiest street outside of Calgary. It was bustling with commerce, but due to base closures, Billings surpassed the city in population in 1970. Malmstrom AFB and Benefis Hosptial remain the city’s economic anchors, encompassing over 10 percent of the city’s workforce.

Economic growth is a little more than stagnant, but is on the rebound compared to previous years, as according to the Great Falls Economic Summit Outlook in 2013, the city added over 900 jobs in 2012, which was prevalently less than Montana’s other populated areas. In 2004, a Coldwell Banker listed Great Falls as the nation’s most affordable housing market out of 348 other cities. Tourism is a small driver of the economy, as the city features various art museums, and the Sip and Dip, a tiki bar that CBS Sunday Morning referred to in 2013 as a “Polynesia on the Plains.”

A small town in the Bakken’s western shales, Sidney, Mont., isn’t more than 6,500 people but is a significant contributor to the state’s economic growth. The Richland Federal Credit Union, a local credit union, saw $76 million in new deposits and shares in 2014. Agriculture was once the city’s economic driver, but oil exploration has completely taken the town over. The population growth over the past 10 years has many residents worried, as the town struggles to upkeep the existing infrastructure due to the oil boom.

Many cities in Montana contribute to the state’s economic growth. Some, like Sidney and towns along the Bakken, are experiencing serious growing pains associated with rapid population and economic growth. Others, like Great Falls, are on a slow and steady rebound from their economic heyday. Overall, Montana’s growth rate is higher than the majority of states and continues to grow.

– Edited by Ian Thompson

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