Rocky science building

Crews were working on the construction of the new science building at Rocky Mountain College in this July file photo.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Science buildings on the Montana State University Billings and Rocky Mountain College campuses could receive up to a half-million dollars total following an announcement Tuesday by Big Sky Economic Development.

Last month, the development agency’s board voted unanimously to donate $100,000 toward construction and completion costs for each building. On Tuesday, BSED agreed to match $100,000 in business contributions toward the MSUB project and $50,000 for the Rocky science building.

Gazette Communications met the Rocky match with a $50,000 contribution, and Zoot Enterprises and Zootist Hospitality, representing the Northern Hotel, announced $10,000 toward the MSUB facility.

“As an MSU Billings alum, it’s easy to get behind a great institution,” said Mike Nelson, who owns and operates the Northern Hotel that hosted Big Sky ED for its annual meeting Tuesday. “It’s easy to support when you walk through the campus and see the future of our world.”

“It’s a great day for Billings,” said Ryan Brosseau, The Gazette’s advertising director.

“This contribution from the business community is a really important piece of fundraising for our science building,” said Ron Larsen, MSUB’s interim chancellor. “It shows it’s a broadly-supported initiative.”

Speaking on behalf of Rocky President Bob Wilmouth, Steve Germic, the college’s provost and academic vice president, said he came to Billings 11 years ago. Driving to work this morning, “I feel like I am living in a different city. It feels like we are on the cusp of another transformation, and we look forward to the increased opportunities, especially with the matching grant.”

The match challenge will remain in place through Dec. 31. Businesses are encouraged to contact Big Sky Economic Development at 406-256-6871 if they’re interested in participating.

David Trost, who chairs Big Sky Economic Development’s Economic Development Corporation, said area business leaders “are not only wishing for large investments in the education of our young people and adults —we’re demanding it.” He described the challenge as “the opportunity to show businesses relocating to this community that we are here for them.”

“For both campuses,” said Big Sky Economic Development’s executive director, Steve Arveschoug, “these projects are just the beginning of what needs to happen to respond to the demands of markets and industry.”

After the announcement, community and business leaders held an hour-long roundtable discussion on a number of current issues: Among them:

  • On workforce development and worker attraction, Arveschoug said it’s his agency’s responsibility to “convince elected officials that investing in talent is fundamental.” A current emphasis is on apprenticeships. Lower than average wages paid by many local employers may not be the hindrance some think it is, Nelson said, noting a chef from Seattle is coming to work for the hotel and restaurant on substantially less than he’s currently making. “We send them economic calculators and our short commute time, and it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “You don’t have a problem attracting top talent if you are willing to make the case. You can live like a king in Billings for about half of what it costs in a large metro area.” Trost said he believes workers should be paid a living wage, but increasing wages can have consequences: “When you raise wages, the cost of living goes up” due to higher cost of housing and other necessities, he said. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator shows a living wage for a single adult in Yellowstone County is $10.19 per hour; in Missoula County, it’s $11.07 per hour.
  • An announcement on applications for grant funding to help pay for a master plan for Coulson Park is expected soon. Big Sky Economic Development is also seeking a $500,000 grant for basic infrastructure investment at the city-owned park at the site of the former J.E. Corette power plant site, a grant the agency must match. “Every polling I see,” Arveschoug said, “says, ‘Make us more connected to the river.’” The challenge will be, “Would the community be willing to pay more to take our outdoor recreation scene to the next level?”
  • Asked about the kinds of business leads he’s working on, Arveschoug mentioned agriculture-based operations. “We produce a lot of pulse crops, and we don’t process one pea here,” he said. He said he’s also been in contact with a fertilizer company. “It’s kind of a hodgepodge right now,” he said.
  • School District 2 is doing “amazing things in an outdated facility” for career technical education students at the district’s Career Center, Arveschoug said, and a partnership with about 20 business partners might well lead to this event in the near future: “Imagine five years from now when we’re all gathered for the ribbon-cutting for a modern, state-of-the-art high school dedicated to career and technical education that is meeting the needs of students and businesses," he said. "We aren’t there yet, but we have the opportunity to get there.”
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