From the Editor: In Billings, history sometimes repeats itself

2012-11-01T00:00:00Z From the Editor: In Billings, history sometimes repeats itselfBy TOM HOWARD The Billings Gazette

Did you ever wonder what the Wall Street Journal has to say about Billings?

Here’s a taste.

“No place is reaping more benefits from rapid energy development, at less cost, than Billings, Mont. Spreading out under the rimrock by the Yellowstone River, it has managed to become a prosperous boom town — without having to put up with the noise, mess and crowding of a boom.”

Yellowstone County doesn’t have a single oil well, yet Billings gets “filthy rich” off of the energy boom, the Journal reported.

The story, written by William E. Blundell, describes how energy workers flock to Billings to shop, visit the doctor or otherwise “let off steam.” Meanwhile, armies of Billings-based salesmen hit the road each week servicing a vast trade area that stretches into Wyoming and the Dakotas.

The Journal described Montana as the Saudi Arabia of coal, and Billings “seems almost immune to the economic cycle outside its market zone.”

You’d have to be blind not to notice that the energy industry has a significant presence in the Billings economy. Several Billings-area companies are manufacturing tanks that are being used in the Bakken oil fields. Bay Ltd., an international company that has hired more than 200 people, has begun trucking large pieces of equipment to the oil sands of Canada.

Local engineers, land men and attorneys commute to Williston, N.D., and Eastern Montana on a regular basis as the boom continues.

And now for the rest of the story: Blundell’s story was published on July 22, 1981. The yellowed clipping landed in my mailbox the other day, compliments of a friend in Vermont who had saved it all these years.

Blundell portrayed Billings of 1981 as an up-and-coming former cow town bucking national economic headwinds. Several national oil companies had a Billings presence, and local brokerage firms were scrambling to set up accounts for well-heeled oil executives.

No doubt local critics accused Blundell of playing a little loose with the facts when he referenced Ollie Warren, a brash-talking madam who ran a Billings brothel for decades. Ollie was a real person — she was even laid to rest at Mountview Cemetery. But Blundell failed to mention that she had died in 1943, and that Billings’ infamous red light district had been cleaned up decades earlier.

It’s easy to quibble with some of the details of the story, but there are striking parallels between today and what was happening 30 years ago. Keep in mind that Billings of the early '80s was a shining beacon of prosperity while the nation was sliding into a recession that endured until 1982.

And if you recall your local history, the good times don’t necessarily last forever. The Billings economy faltered after oil prices tumbled to less than $10 per barrel in 1986. Had Blundell returned to Billings a few years later, he would have found high unemployment and a housing market glutted with hundreds of foreclosures. It took Billings years to climb out of that trough.

Since history has a way of repeating itself, a lot of people keep asking how Billings would fare if the Bakken oil boom fizzles. Opinions vary, but one advantage in our favor is that the local economy is more diversified than it was 30 years ago. Another advantage, numerous experts tell us, is that oil prices would have to fall somewhere below $60 per barrel before it doesn’t make sense to look for oil in the Bakken. And the size of the Bakken resource is so large that drilling activity is expected to continue for years.

So keep your fingers crossed that the good times last. With any luck, the Wall Street Journal just might pay us another visit.    

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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