I don’t know if City Councilman Gibbs was being serious or not when he pointed out that among the fiscal risks to One Big Sky District is the proposal that the federal government is threatening to eliminate air transportation, cattle and carbon fuels, which he pointed out would destroy most of Billings’ economic base of tourism, ranching and refineries. No matter whether he considered this a serious threat or not, it caused me (watching on television) to laugh out loud – it was funny either way. I expected half the people at the city council meeting to laugh as well, but there wasn’t even a little chuckle, which leaves me worried.
Surely, at least half the people in the room realized that the unfeasibility of those ideas deserves a laugh – and, even for those who believe the federal government’s proposals are sound, they should have been amused by the irony of supporting a project greatly dependent on tourism, while expecting the end of air transportation in ten years. If not laughable, it should have been enough to change their vote.
That no one laughed worries me, because that means they are too afraid to honestly express themselves, in what’s become a toxic atmosphere which permeates the free exchange of ideas and of speech, not to mention humor – or else they simply don’t see the contradictions, which is certainly not a laughing matter.
It isn’t laughable to wonder at the lack of analysis that has been done to figure out if Yellowstone County has enough of an economic base to support a $2.5 billion investment, in what to a large degree is a service industry.
Is the basic industry in our area – ie. tourism, agriculture, oil, mining, health care – huge enough to fuel secondary businesses of retail stores, office rentals, apartment rentals, education, attorneys, health and fitness providers, restaurants, entertainment, etc.?
That was essentially the question that Pat Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, immediately went to when he was asked what he thought about OBSD, during the Economic Outlook Seminar. His answer was to ask whether the project was responding to needs of our basic industry, or whether the project was expecting to create the basic industry.
That should be the most important analysis of all.
Chances are OBSD would do some of both – creating basic as well as secondary industry. The fact that it appears to need “incentives” or subsidies, to make it feasible, says it probably isn’t generating enough in the basic industry department.
But actually of deepest concern is that so many people, who are making such big decisions, don’t seem to even know that the size of our basic industry is something about which to be concerned in making those decisions. Fiscal issues do not succeed or fail based upon “feelings,” “whimsical wishes,” or emotional appeals.
While scoffed at, in the OBSD planning document, as being greatly inadequate, the fact that Billings has grown “slow and steady” for a century or more is a hugely positive economic history. Economically volatile communities struggle. “Slow and steady” means that as our economic base has grown, secondary businesses have steadily and soundly responded.
We had our boom and bust experience back in the 80s… remember that?
The oil boom electrified Billings. It is hard to describe the atmosphere that permeated the community during that period. Buildings couldn’t be constructed fast enough – there were celebrations at every “happy hour” and invitations to holiday parties were prolific — everyone drove a new car – and lots of entrepreneurs were starting new businesses – and young people (mostly geologists) abounded.
Then there was the bust, the moment when the basic industry that supported the explosion of secondary businesses, collapsed. Losses abounded, then.
It is no exaggeration to say, that there were days that to look up and down any residential street in Billings, was to see so many moving vans being loaded, it felt like Atlanta-burning. Our social agendas were booked with going-away parties, then. It was truly heartbreaking.
“Slow and steady” is nothing to be scoffed at – especially when one looks at the cyclical economies of some the communities to whom Billings is often compared. None of them have been able to generate an economy as strong and stable as that of Billings, in large part because they have lacked the diversification in their economic base that Billings has always had. They each had most of their eggs in one basket, which meant that they have always suffered the ups and downs of that one basic industry.
But to take this one step further, since when does the success of one of our state’s communities pose a threat? Is that the contest? While it might be worthwhile to monitor the ups and downs of different communities to identify what works and what fails, for any community to grow in Montana is a boon to all of the state. Worry about one community growing more than another, goes to the issue of whether you believe economics is static and we are just fighting for a slice of the pie, or whether it is dynamic and growing, and we can make a bigger pie for all.
To nurture our basic industries is by far the best course of action for any community and for the state. The rest will automatically follow. Sound businesses will grow… built from the ground up —solid and stable –generating, incrementally, year after year, to our wealth, jobs and community strength.
Slow and steady is strong and solid.