SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — With the goal of opening hearts and minds to new ideas, 25 Billings business, hospitality and civic leaders are in Sioux Falls Monday through Wednesday on a Chamber of Commerce journey being billed as an “aspirational” city visit.
It’s not so much that Billings aspires to be Sioux Falls, organizers say. But the economies of both communities, as speakers Monday pointed out, have a lot in common, including agriculture, regionally significant health care systems, destination shopping, tourism — and the challenges that can come with sustained growth.
Billings Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Brewer quoted Mark Twain on what the visit may well accomplish: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether boiled his community’s rapid
growth down to four words:
“It’s all about confidence.”
“We even tackled pension reform, because we had the guts to take it on,” he said, and 80 percent of the city’s unionized workforce voted in favor of a reform plan the mayor said will save taxpayers $300 million over 25 years.
Huether, who was re-elected to a second four-year term last month, said he believes medical researchers in Sioux Falls are so talented that South Dakota’s largest city will be the site of the discovery of cures for both juvenile diabetes and breast cancer. “It’s about competing with the big boys and the big girls,” he said.
At 3.7 percent, the city’s unemployment rate remains far lower than that of most other cities. Sioux Falls added 3,000 jobs in 2013 and saw $588 million in construction, a record. The job growth rate nearly matched the 3,500 new residents who moved to Sioux Falls in 2013.
Every Sioux Falls resident lives within one-half mile of a city park, the mayor said. Sixteen percent of the city budget is spent on cultural or recreational events. A major downtown shopping street, Phillips Avenue, is dotted with public art that’s swapped out annually.
“We’ve been called America’s next boom town, and we’re not done,” Huether said.
Mike Cooper, the city’s planning director, took the group through a primer on Sioux Falls city government. With the mayor-council form of government, Sioux Falls — unlike Billings — has no city administrator.
Sioux Falls has one funding mechanism not available to any community in Montana — the sales tax. City government receives 2 cents on every dollar of taxable purchases. One penny helps fund city government; the other pays for capital improvements.
Sales tax revenue grew 8 percent last year; city leaders expected it to grow only 5 percent.
Billings leaders said they were very interested in learning more about Sioux Falls’ success as well as hearing ideas about what works.
“We are here to learn more about the spark you folks have that we can take back,” Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said. “What we learn, we are going to take home — and I suspect we have something to teach you, too.”
“I’ve been here about seven hours, and my head is already spinning with ideas,” said Ron Yates, a partner with the Eide Bailly accounting firm, the trip’s main sponsor.
Upon their arrival Monday, the Billings contingent was met with a lunchtime presentation by Dan Letellier, director of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport.
A 2010 study showed that 40 percent of Sioux Falls-area travelers were driving three hours to Omaha or four hours to Minneapolis to save money on their plane tickets. An advertising campaign and $23 million in airport renovations and additions helped drop that leakage rate to 19 percent, Letellier said.
While bigger than Billings Logan International Airport, the Sioux Falls airport is similar, he said: both have regional draws, although about 800,000 people live within two hours of Sioux Falls, far more than the population Billings draws from. Both airports serve similar business clients, including the energy and medical sectors of the economy.
“It’s been a while since I was at the Billings airport,” he said, “but my impression is a positive one.”
Cooper, the planning director, led a bus tour highlighting some of the city’s eight industrial parks. Cooper pointed out to the visitors the handsome industrial parks — brick and mortar buildings, landscaping and sidewalks — as well as older parks with metal siding and businesses not usually high on chamber visit agendas, including a junk yard.
Even the junk yard, Cooper noted, is “important to economic development.”
Included on the drive-by tour were two of Sioux Falls’ largest employers, Citibank and John Morrell & Co., each of which has more than 3,000 workers.
At the latter plant, a diverse workforce speaks more than 60 languages, Cooper said.
Ten acres of rail line are being removed in the downtown railroad switching yard in the next two years, Cooper said, and officials hope the property will be redeveloped.
Also being developed is the look of the city’s front door, the route between the airport and the downtown region.
“We are always concerned,” the 28-year city veteran said, “about people’s first impressions.”