Chuck Tooley, Directory, Urban Institute, 896-5862
Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
September 13, 2007
An Urban Identity
New MSU Billings endeavor to tackle myriad of unique issues
MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — The city of Billings and the university that makes its home here have their own unique qualities.
Over the course of the past decade, Billings has gone from a big small town to a small big city. The city features two major medical facilities (with a third now under construction) two oil refineries, two four-year institutions of higher education, a growing campus for two-year workforce/technical education, a public school system that educates 15,000 students every day and is a hub of retail, financial and energy-related services for Montana and the region.
With a population of over 100,000 citizens, Billings is the only true urban area of the state.
MSU Billings, likewise, has an urban quality to it.
The student body of about 5,000 students is traditionally “older” than other four-year universities in Montana, with an average age of 26.2. And many of the young, first-time students don’t live on campus. In fact, about 90 percent of MSU Billings students either drive, walk or ride to school from an off-campus location every day during the school year. About 80 percent of the students hold down jobs in the community as well, many of them working to support families while they pursue their degrees.
And once they earn those degrees, 87 percent of MSU Billings graduates go to work Montana, many in Billings and Yellowstone County.
Now the university is taking that urban connection a step further, developing an entity that will address issues unique to Billings and the region.
The Urban Institute of Montana State University Billings, a unit whose mission is to identify critical issues of long-range significance to the community, will provide collaborative leadership to address emergent problems and opportunities as well as help implement sustainable solutions.
It’s not a think tank, but is solutions-driven and action-oriented, said MSU Billings Chancellor Ron Sexton.
“Many of the challenges that Billings faces are those that require collaboration and collaborative solutions,” Sexton said. “We hope to provide that direction and leadership.”
The concept of the Urban Institute was developed by Sexton in the late 1980s. He conceived it as something to help bring the best minds together so that issues specific to a growing and urbanized Billings at that time could be grappled with and resolved. The establishment of the institute was approved by the Board of Regents in 1989 and had brief periods of activity. When MSU Billings opened its downtown campus a few years ago, Sexton said the time was right to give the Urban Institute new life.
“The issues that we were facing then are still with us,” he said.
To help move forward on the challenges confronting a growing urban area, Sexton turned to former Billings mayor Chuck Tooley for help. Currently Tooley is working part-time to get the Urban Institute of Montana State University Billings off the ground. In a few short months, he has organized an advisory board and is engaging civic and business leaders in new ways.
It didn’t take him long to get his first initiative off the ground. Working with the Pew Partnership for Civic Change, Tooley will meet with a selected group of business, university and civic leaders for a daylong meeting on developing “smart communities.” The session will be led by Dr. Suzanne Morse, president of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change and author of “Smart Communities: How Citizens and Local Leaders Can Use Strategic Thinking to Build a Better Future.”
Tooley intentionally kept the invited group small so the session could be focused on action. He emphasized that his work will not replace that being done by others, but he wants to complement it and help find ways to make current initiatives sustainable. While the community should justifiably celebrate passage of this spring’s School District 2 mill levy, he said as an example, work should also be under way to ensure strong support again next year. Strategic approaches to those and other issues will help build a framework for economic and community vitality in the future.
“The idea is to enhance what different organizations are doing,” Tooley said. “I want to have consensus from a good solid group of people.”
Now that Billings is at 100,000 people, Tooley said the time is ripe to focus on some key issues ranging from energy, the environment, creative/arts endeavors, the role of the Yellowstone River to the city and health. He wants to engage people about the urban environment as it relates to resource use, health care, art and workforce. But he also recognizes the importance of the rural/urban interface.
Urban and rural residents “have to understand how important we are to each other,” he said. Like the university, the city draws from a diverse region and understanding the needs of that region is critical.
Working part time from an office at the MSU Billings Downtown Campus, Tooley said he will tap into the expertise of a community advisory board and get involved in a wide array of activities.
The key, he said, would be sustainability.
“What’s been missing a lot of times is follow through,” he said. “We need to find out what we need to accomplish (as a community) and get it done in order to progress.”
Tooley, long-time Billings businessman who also has his own communications company, served on the Billings City Council from 1988 through 1993, prior to being elected mayor. He is the longest-serving mayor in the history of Billings, retiring undefeated at the end of 2005.
He served as president of the Montana League of Cities and Towns and was the first Montanan to serve in the leadership of the United States Conference of Mayors. He now works on consulting in public policy issues. Tooley accepts dozens of invitations a year to speak about leadership, citizenship, climate issues and other subjects.
He has traveled the globe, from working on urban land issues in Washington, D.C., to the Middle East Institute for Peace in Cyprus to the U.S. Mayor’s Committee on Resource Conservation and Population.
He is married to Joan Stapleton Tooley, former president and publisher of The New Republic magazine in Washington, D.C.
The Urban Institute is located in the Broadway III building of the MSU Billings downtown campus, on the corner of North Broadway and Third Avenue North. The phone number is 896-5862.