A DECADE OF FEAR AND HOPE

First 10 years of 21st century marked by terrorism, wars and a growing city

2009-12-30T00:00:00Z First 10 years of 21st century marked by terrorism, wars and a growing cityLORNA THACKERAY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
December 30, 2009 12:00 am  • 

Ten years ago this month, gas cost $1.59 a gallon, computer processors were 10 times slower and you didn’t have to remove your shoes and dump your shampoo to get on an airplane.

Ah, the good old days.

Snug in front of our televisions watching with guilty fascination as the first of the reality shows, “Survivor,” began plumbing the depths of everyday human shamelessness, we had no inkling that Osama bin Laden was about to impose a more deadly reality.

Before long, men and women from Montana and Wyoming found themselves half a world away fighting two wars. All these years later, with diminishing faith in a good outcome, we get mournful reminders when one of our own comes home in a flag-draped coffin. The Montana death toll so far is 40. Another 250 have been wounded, some of them grievously. Wyoming’s death count is about 22.

As these new horrors unfolded, a bull market that pushed the Dow Jones industrial average above 11,000 began to slow in 2001. But it soared again in the biggest rally of all time starting in 2006 and did not slam to a halt until after it topped 14,000 in October 2007. Then it all came tumbling down, and didn’t hit bottom at 6,547 until March 2009. By the final days of this year it had rebounded to 10,547.

After 9/11, no event during the first decade of the new millennium resonated so strongly as the crashing economy. For Montana, and especially Billings, the severity of the recession was muted by a long history of conservative economic practices. There are no crumbling banks or ghettos of foreclosed homes.

But housing prices stagnated, construction ground to a standstill and consumers closed their wallets. Unemployment in Montana rose to 6.7 percent July through September of this year – 2.6 percent above the five-year average, but far lower than the national rate of more than 10 percent, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. It’s down to 6.4 percent now. As of November, Wyoming’s unemployment rate was 7.2 percent.

 In Yellowstone County, the November unemployment rate was 4.7 percent, or 1.9 percent above the five-year average.

The duration of the recession is reflected in numbers from Montana’s U.S. Bankruptcy Court. In fiscal 2008, the first full year of recession, the court juggled 1,894 filings. In fiscal 2009, the caseload has jumped to 2,593 — a 36.9 percent increase. Wyoming went from 774 cases in fiscal 2008 to 1,249 in 2009, a 61.4 percent increase. Nationwide, the increase was 34.5 percent.

The recession fell hardest on the poor and was most demoralizing for the working poor, who saw the odds of improving their lot diminishing.

Gary Drake, executive director of the Montana Rescue Mission in Billings said that the recession has contributed to homelessness, but said numbers were growing even before. The mission used to see seasonal fluctuations in occupancy at the men’s shelter and the women and family shelter, Drake noted.

“We don’t see that at all now,” he said. “We seem to be full or nearly full all year.”

Some of the homeless have jobs but don’t make enough to put a roof over their heads.

“The middle class is rapidly disappearing,” Drake said. “The disparity between the haves and have nots keeps growing.”

The good news is that many organizations have formed in the past 10 years to combat homelessness, including a mayor’s task force. But the shortage of affordable housing options continues, Drake said.

 

Topping 100,000

 

Part of the increase in homelessness can be attributed to population growth. There is no doubt about it, people are moving to Billings. U.S. census statistics indicate that Billings’ population topped 100,000 in 2006 – an increase of 9.2 percent from census 2000.

The 100,000 mark put Billings on the radar of expanding and relocating businesses, said John Brewer, executive director of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce. A drive down the length of King Avenue can attest to Billings’ allure for national chains.

Yellowstone County had an estimated population of more than 142,000 in 2008, representing a 10 percent increase in eight years. Montana’s population as a whole climbed 7.2 percent in the same period. Wyoming’s went up 7.9 percent.

The city physically expanded by 9.081 square miles in the last 10 years, said Nicole Cromwell of the city-county planning department. That’s about 5,812 acres. Some of the increase can be attributed to annexing existing subdivisions – Briarwood and Yellowstone Country Club, for instance. But new subdivisions on the West End and more recently in the Heights were rapidly expanding the city limits until recession burst the bubble, she said.

Billings has added 87 miles of new streets, 29 miles of storm drains, 76 miles of water line and 89 miles of sanitary sewer, said city engineer Debi Mehling.

“One big change we’ve made is that our street design has changed to accommodate all sorts of travel,” she said.

There are now more bike paths, trails and pedestrian crossings for increasing numbers of bikers, walkers and runners.

A major new north-south corridor on the West End that connected Zimmerman Trail to King Avenue West was constructed. Shiloh Road evolved from a back road to a four-lane thoroughfare engineered with the city’s first roundabouts as replacement for traffic signals. Parts of King Avenue and Airport Road were rebuilt, too.

After years of setbacks, Billings voters finally decided to replace Cobb Field with Dehler Park, a new downtown baseball venue. In the process, Billings lost aging Athletic Pool. No new pool replaced it, and attempts to build a pool in the Heights continue.

 

Center of growth

 

New centers of commerce have developed at Shiloh Crossing, including Kohl’s department store and the Shiloh 14 multiplex theater, and at the Foursquare Development, which includes Cabela’s and the soon-to-be open Sam’s Club.

Billings came into its own as a convention center in the past 10 years, Brewer said. Stepped-up marketing efforts have sold the city for major national conventions and meetings. The American Bowling Congress in 2002 and two Gold Wing Road Rider Association meetings brought 60,000 visitors to Billings in the past decade, he said. Thousands more attended smaller conventions through the years, dropping tens of millions of dollars in their wake.

Although 9/11 and precarious airline finance has made air travel about as pleasant as a day in a sweatshop, Billings continues to boast an array of flight options rare in a city of its size. During the past 10 years, passenger numbers have gone up 21 percent, said Tom Binford, the city’s aviation and transit director. That’s a steady increase of 2 to 3 percent a year, even considering the drastic hit airlines took for a couple years after 9/11.

Some of the planes may be smaller regional jets, but the airlines are also offering more one-stop destinations, Binford said. Now passengers can fly direct not only to Salt Lake City, Denver and Minneapolis, but also to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Seattle. Seasonal non-stop flights also take passengers to Chicago and Atlanta.

Nowhere is Billings’ growth more pronounced than in medicine. No longer sticking strictly to the medical corridor, clinics and medical centers are operating or being constructed all over town.

Both hospitals continue to expand. Billings Clinic has a new Family Center, a new emergency department and new cancer care facilities. St. Vincent Healthcare launched St. Vincent Children’s Healthcare to provide intensive pediatric care for children who would otherwise be flown to hospitals out of state. It also introduced a new neonatal intensive care unit. Technology at both facilities continues at the cutting edge. Fewer patients than ever need to find treatment elsewhere.

 

Schools remain strong

 

Billings schools still turn out some of the best-prepared students in the country, educators say.

“What we’re doing in our schools is better than it’s ever been,” said Kathy Olson, School District 2 elementary education director. “We have better-trained teachers than we’ve ever had. People in other places are spending big bucks to get the quality of education we have in our public schools in Billings.”

But the same basic problem that plagued Montana schools and Billings in particular 10 years ago remain. Schools are the only government entity that has to go to the public for some of its operating revenue and most new building projects. In the vast majority of Montana communities, mill-levy passage is a matter of course. Jack Copps, superintendent of School District 2, said 97 percent of all levies pass statewide.

Billings voters have persistently bucked that trend. They have turned down three of five mill levy requests for elementary school operations in the past 10 years and four of six high school levies. They also rejected a 2006 levy to build a fourth high school and remodel Senior and West high schools. Proposals for technology improvements at the high schools and elementary schools also bit the dust.

Meanwhile, the state keeps whittling away at the amount it contributes to schools. Historically, the state has kicked in 50.45 percent of the costs, Copps said. But for fiscal 2008, the state’s contribution was just 33 percent.

“These are very uncertain times,” Copps said. “There was greater hope 10 years ago that financial issues would be resolved at both the state and local levels. That hope has diminished.”

Schools throughout the city are overcrowded. West and Senior are operating beyond capacity and freshmen are now bused off campus to academies. West End kindergartners are bused past filled-beyond-capacity neighborhood schools.

While the school district concentrates its resources on providing the best education possible with the money available, something else has got to give. In School District 2, it has meant putting building maintenance on the back burner. Deferred maintenance now totals about $121 million, Copps said.

The most significant changes in education in the last 10 years are No Child Left Behind and full-day kindergarten. No Child Left Behind, a federally mandated program, has made the district and its teachers more accountable for results by testing student’s learning skills throughout their school careers. Although the program has its flaws, students are increasing their scores every year, Olson said.

Full-day kindergarten essentially added the equivalent of 500 students to the district when these 5- and 6-year-olds doubled their time in the classroom. Educationally, the change was welcome, but it exacerbated problems of overcrowding.

 

Battling meth

 

There is good news on one of the principal scourges of the last decade — methamphetamine. U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer said a survey of high school students showed that fewer teenagers are trying the dangerously addictive drug, attesting to the influence of the Montana Meth Project anti-meth campaign that included graphic portrayals of meth addicts in television commercials, billboards and newspaper ads. Drug agents and prosecutors have also been doing a good job of cutting supply lines, he said.

“Methamphetamine definitely shaped drug enforcement for almost the entire period,” Mercer said.

In the first half of the decade, an average of about 100 meth defendants were prosecuted federally each year, he said. This year, for the first time, the numbers are going down.

On the other hand, cocaine is seeing a resurgence, Mercer said. Prosecutions for cocaine, which have included such high-profile figures as a Carbon County attorney, have doubled from the low 20s to the low 40s, he said.

 

A new kind of crime

 

The most dramatic change in the federal sphere is an explosion of Internet crimes against children — child pornographers or child predators trying to arrange sexual encounters with children.

“At the start of the decade we might have had two or three or four cases a year,” Mercer said. “By 2003, it was 25 or 30. In a peak year, we had 50.”

Putting that number in perspective, the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecutes no more than 400 defendants a year, he said.

“Our caseload has just exploded,” the prosecutor said.  “People are astonished that with a state of fewer than 1 million people how many of these cases we have.”

 

 

Economic progress

 

Montana’s economic mainstays – agriculture, energy and tourism — had a good run during the decade, at least until the recession snowballed.

Agriculture had it best year ever between the spring of 2007 and into the fall of 2008, said Jim Gransbery, retired Billings Gazette agriculture reporter.

“Farmers and ranchers were getting prices that were beyond belief, but input costs were going in the same direction,” he said. “Prices of wheat and feeder cattle went to historic levels.”

Agriculture saw a fundamental change during the decade, Gransbery said. Agricultural products have become “securitized” like all other commodities, he said. Prices have become so caught up in futures, options other complexities of the market that price has no real relation to the cost of producing the commodity, he said.

“So many things are out of the control of producers now,” he said. “It makes risk management so much more difficult.”

The oil patch sprung to life during the decade, more than doubling production from 15.8 million barrels in 2000 to 32 million in 2008. At its peak in 2006, the industry pumped more than 36 million barrels out of Montana oil fields, most of it from the Bakken formation in Eastern Montana.

The boom was the result of new technology that Billings petroleum geologist Richard Findley helped develop, said David Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association. It was Findley’s idea to drill horizontally into the formation and to fracture the rock to release the oil.

With the price of oil rocketing to the stratosphere at mid-decade, the timing was right.

Demand edged down in the latter part of the decade and stabilized. But Galt said he thinks the state is going to see production go up again as soon as next year.

Natural gas production nearly doubled during the decade as well, Galt said. Old fields in northern Montana were refurbished, he said, and coalbed methane development began in southeast Montana.

Coal production increased during the decade from 31.7 million tons in 2000 to 44 million tons in 2009, according to Bud Clinch, executive director of the Montana Coal Council. That figure is likely to climb with the addition of the Signal Peak Mine between Billings and Roundup and the new rail spur connecting the mine to the market place. The mine could produce up to 10 million tons a year.

 

Plenty of visitors

 

Tourism, another of the state’s big economic engines, had its share of tough breaks during the last few years but still pulls in an estimated 10 million out-of-state visitors each year. Gas prices went way over $4 a gallon in July 2008, resulting in a dismal tourist season. Recession kept a few people home this summer, although Glacier and Yellowstone parks had banner years. Tourist officials speculate that visitors to the parks may have been more regional than in other years and that they probably spent less once they got to their destination.

At Yellowstone, controversies that brewed in 2000 are still there. Wolves and snowmobiles still dominate discussion of the park’s future.

On the wildlife front, things have only gotten worse for Montana hunters, said Bob Gibson, spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Fewer private landowners are permitting hunters. More farmers and ranchers are leasing their land for exclusive use of outfitters and other paying customers, he said. And tens of thousands of acres each year are purchased by nontraditional owners — investors or wealthy non-farmers who want a place to recreate or hunt. Many of them don’t welcome hunters. Gibson estimates that hundreds of thousands of acres have been closed in the last 10 years.

Elk, deer and antelope head for those protected places with the first gun fire of hunting season, resulting in fewer animals and more hunters on public lands, Gibson said.

 

A dry decade

 

Montana’s physical well-being took a beating in the first five years of the decade as pervasive drought shriveled the landscape. It dried up creeks and reservoirs, forced ranchers to sell herds a hundred years in the making and withered crops as soon as they sprouted. Wells and springs that had water even in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, went dry.

In Billings, three of those early years ranked among the city’s 10 driest. In a normal year, Billings receives about 14.76 inches of precipitation. But from 1999 to 2004, Billings didn’t even come close. According to statistics from the National Weather Service office in Billings, 2002, with just 9.3 inches of precipitation, was the fourth-driest year in history; 2003, with 9.74 inches, was the seventh-driest; and 2000,with 10.68 inches, was the 10th-driest.

The decade also produced two of the warmest years on record for Billings – 2006 was fifth-warmest; 2003 was seventh-warmest. Persistent summer heat in 2006 created one of the worst fire years in Montana history. More than 1 million acres were scorched, including hundreds of thousands in Eastern Montana.

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