Reporter's Notebook: Figuring out what Billings aspires to be

2014-03-30T00:00:00Z 2014-06-19T10:13:19Z Reporter's Notebook: Figuring out what Billings aspires to beBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Usually when I’m working, I’m like a fly on the wall, peering at what’s going on without getting too involved or caring too much about the outcome — so long as folks keep their flyswatter in their pocket.

But this May 5th through 7th, that traditional viewpoint will be sorely tested. This fly will still be watching, but he’ll do it from a seat at the table and not sticking to a stucco wall.

With financial help from at least eight sponsors, the Billings Chamber of Commerce and their counterparts in Sioux Falls, S.D., are planning a leadership exchange for 25 Billings business and civic leaders and one newspaper reporter.

The packed itinerary for what’s being called an aspirational city visit includes tours, meals, speeches, conversations, more meals — and a visit to the Great Plains Zoo.

We may even tip a libation or two.

My plan is to take in every stop of the visit, then stay up late filing a story or two for the readers back home. If you can’t be there as key leaders are learning what Billings might be like in the coming years, you can at least read all about it a few hours later.

I’ll even try to snap a photo or two.

A big goal of the trip and the conversation and follow-up afterward, according to Billings Chamber of Commerce president and chief executive officer John Brewer, is “to make sure our corporate and civic leaders are taking time to think creatively about the future of Billings with a long term horizon. … We are using this visit as one tool to facilitate visioning and shape the future of Billings.”

Brewer has toured Sioux Falls while preparing for the event. He said he’s “impressed with the number of things we could aspire to.” He said he was also encouraged “to see how ahead of the game we are, too.”

Sioux Falls probably has a philanthropic leg up on us. Denny Sanford of First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard has donated more than a half-billion dollars, mostly to the children of his community. While we’re there we’ll check out some of the facilities that bear his name.

Demographically, the two communities have a lot in common. Sioux Falls is also growing, a little faster than Billings is. Its unemployment rate is even punier than ours — 3.5 percent compared to our 3.9 percent. It’s slightly more racially diverse than Billings and has a 6 percent higher median household income. It’s a comparative bargain to buy a home there — the median home value is 15 percent lower than ours.

About 11 percent of Sioux Falls residents live below the poverty level, about 2 points lower than Billings’ rate.

Our communities have almost the same number of people per square mile (2,399 in Billings, 2,109 in Sioux Falls). At 73 square miles, Sioux Falls has about 30 more square miles within its city limits.

While the visiting group doesn’t include leadership from City Hall — the Billings City Council will be considering the 2014-15 budget for the first time on May 5 — County Commissioner Bill Kennedy will be there, as will a fairly diverse group of participants.

Included are leaders from Billings nonprofits (Julie Dial of the Western Heritage Center and Jeff Ewelt of ZooMontana, among others), bankers (Patrice Elliott of Wells Fargo Bank and Butch Bratsky of Stockman Bank, among others), and hoteliers (Shelli Mann of Boothill Inn and Suites, Nichole Mehling-Miles of Hilton Garden Inn, Steve Wahrlich of Best Western Plus Clocktower, Ginny Hart of Big Horn Resort, among others). Lawyers, economic development types and tourism promoters will also be along.

Attendees won’t be done with their work once they return. Brewer has assignments for most of the group, including exploring construction of a convention center, growing sports venues and expanding or improving attractions and trails. Chamber board members and employees in attendance will have their work cut out for them, too. Thankfully, my work will be done once I’m home.

Or will it? No matter how attractive our attractions and how fabulous our facilities, we can always learn from a neighbor who’s been there and done that. My guess is that our hosts also will pick up a thing or two.

I’ve got a feeling everyone on the trip, to one extent or another, may catch the vision Brewer and others see and make some changes to bring it about.

Of course, there are very few local problems a half-billion dollars won’t settle.

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

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