Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269
Chuck Tooley, Urban Institute, 896-5862
September 27, 2007
Getting Billings from Good to Great
Urban Institute of MSU Billings gathers community leaders for dialogue about city’s future
MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — By any measurable standard, Billings is doing pretty good these days: Unemployment is at 2 percent; the city has a diversified economy; poverty is below the state and national averages; the median household income far exceeds that of Montana as a whole.
But how does the city best position itself for the future.
That question – and the particular challenges surrounding it — was the focus of a daylong seminar Thursday hosted by the Urban Institute of Montana State University Billings.
The daylong event at the MSU Billings Downtown Campus included participation by about 50 Billings business, civic and political leaders. Called a “smart communities” seminar, it was not only a brainstorming session, but an opportunity to begin prioritizing issues that will help Billings thrive in the future, said Chuck Tooley, director of the Urban Institute.
“This was a good first start,” said Tooley, former mayor of Billings who was tapped by MSU Billings Chancellor Ron Sexton to direct the institute on a part-time basis. “There is a lot of engagement and a lot of great ideas.”
The key, Tooley said, is develop community agreement on how to move forward so that the heavy lifting — who actually will be responsible for certain steps — can be accomplished.
“The Urban Institute cannot do all of these things,” Tooley said, pointing to a laundry list of objectives. “It has to be a combined effort.”
To provide some guidance, Tooley brought to Billings Dr. Suzanne Morse, director of the Pew Partnership for Civic Change at the University of Richmond. Morse led the group on in a conversation that was intentionally forward-looking. She acknowledged the cultural and historical values of Billings, but wanted the group to think how Billings was going to “move from good to great.”
Morse is a nationally recognized author, speaker and advocate for strategic civic change. Her model for thriving communities emphasizes civic partnerships, broad-based civic leadership and a development process based on assets from all sectors of a community. Using proprietary metrics supported by U.S. Census and state government data, she walked through some key aspects of Billings that proves the community is in a good position:
- About 15 percent of the population has a household income of less than $25,000. That’s better than the state average of 18 percent and much better than the U.S. average of 26 percent.
- In Billings, 32 percent of the household have an income of greater than $75,000, which is better than the Montana average of 27 percent and the U.S. average of 25 percent.
- The median household income in Billings is $43,843, which is above the state median income of $38,629.
- In Billings, 8 percent of the families are in poverty, while the state number is 9 percent and the U.S. number is 10 percent.
- The economy is very diversified. The federal government, the Billings Clinic and School District 2 each claim more than 2,000 employees.
- Unemployment has hovered around 2 percent for several months.
- Citizens here have good access to health care. In Billings there are 574 hospital beds while the U.S. average for a city is 420.
- The number of medical doctors per capita in Billings is 307 while the U.S. average is 244.
“You have a terrific city. The quality of life here is great,” she said during a short break. “But the question is, ‘how do you take that next step.’ ”
One thing Morse suggested was a strong focus on the economy and affordable housing.
“The good news is that you have unemployment of about 2 percent,” she said. “The bad news is that you have unemployment of about 2 percent.”
Unless the community makes strides on getting new workers to Billings at all levels, she said, the same number of workers will essentially churn from one industry to another or one business to another and long-term economic growth cannot be sustained. At the same time, she noted, about one-quarter of Billings’ workforce is classified as “underemployed.”
She also said it will be important for Billings to leverage the resources of the higher education community for applied research and technology transfer. Those resources, she said, will be critical to help build and sustaining Billings as it continues to grow.
Tooley said he plans to have follow-up discussions with leaders to determine how best to use strategic decisions in all areas of civic, cultural, economic and educational development.
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 office is open afternoons and Tooley can be reached at 896-5862.