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Billings saw a lot of business in 2018, everything from a rush on hotel rooms when the President of the United States visited town, to a local Hutterite colony getting internet for the first time so it could sell steel siding and roofing. 

Below is a roundup of some of the big business trends that hit Billings during 2018 and continue to shape the city's economic landscape as it moves into the new year.

Refinery turnarounds benefit Billings

The regular spring maintenance at the three area oil refineries couldn't come at a better time for the city's economy, and this year both CHS and Exxon brought in crews for massive turnarounds. 

These huge maintenance projects are not annual events but they are done regularly. Turnarounds require massive amounts of work to be done in a relatively short time and for that reason refineries bring in crews of out-of-state contractors to speed the process. 

In May, the CHS refinery in Laurel brought to town hundreds of welders, pipe fitters and other specialists from as far away as Texas and Louisiana. They all booked hotel rooms, ate in local restaurants and shopped at area stores. 

It added up to roughly a $6 million impact on the local hospitality industry, a shot in the arm when the tourist economy is at its winter ebb. Turnarounds give the local economy that slump-season goose that impacts morale and the bottom line.  

First Interstate on a buying spree

As part of its expansion into the regional banking market, officials at First Interstate Bank in Billings purchased three regional banks this year. Two are based in Idaho — Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls — and the other is in Washington, the Spokane-based Northwest Bancorp., parent company of Inland Northwest Bank.

On top of that, early this month First Interstate placed a $175,000-a-year bid with Yellowstone County to secure naming rights for the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark when Rimrock Auto group lets the rights go in May. The company will learn early next year if they've won. 

First Interstate purchased Idaho Independent Bank, headquartered in Coeur d'Alene, for $181.3 million. It purchased the Community 1st Bank in Post Falls $21.5 million. Northwest Bancorp., parent company of Inland Northwest Bank, was purchased for $160.9 million. 

First Interstate operates in Montana and five other western states, including Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.

WinCo starts to build 

At the beginning of the year WinCo Foods submitted plans to build its first store in Billings on the old Kmart site at 24th Street West and Central Avenue. The Kmart building, which had been on that corner for more than 40, was razed this spring and all summer crews worked to construct the new WinCo building, which is just about complete.  

The grocery chain has leased the property from MoDakCo, a small LLC out of Rapid City, South Dakota and as part of the deal MoDakCo cut out three "footprints" along 24th Street where businesses could set up shop. 

MoDakCo owns the entire lot, including the land on which Hardee's sits. Hardee's renewed its lease with MoDakCo last fall and will continue to operate on the corner of 24th and Central for the next decade. 

The three footprints have generated a lot of interest and brokers in town, along with business owners believe the new development will have the potential to breathe life into a city block that has slowly atrophied over the last decade. 

Gainan's leaves downtown

The next phase of Gainan's existence meant leaving its longtime home in downtown Billings. 

It's one of the biggest moves in the company's history. Gainan's Flowers opened nearly seven decades ago downtown. Over the years, the flower shop and home decor store expanded to the Heights and to the West End with a store on 24th Street West. 

Its new location, Gainan's Midtown Flowers in West Park Promenade on Grand Avenue, opened in April on the anniversary of Gainan's original opening in 1951.

Last year the company decided it was time to close its headquarters downtown and its store on 24th Street and move into a single location. The company phased out the store on 24th Street over the past month and has spent the past six months transforming the old Hastings store at Grand Avenue and 17th Street West into its new base of operations.

Gig economy heats up

Magic City residents can rent out their homes to vacationers using Airbnb, taxi people around town as Lyft and Uber drivers and, within the last year, they started delivering restaurant meals as UberEATS couriers and doing people's shopping through Instacart.

Instacart, the app-based delivery service expanded to Montana and entered the Billings market in June. The service employs shoppers who take grocery orders from Instacart users, shop at the stores and then deliver those orders to the users' homes. Instacart's expansion into Billings includes the Heights, Lockwood, Acton, Huntley and Pryor.

With a population of just more than a million people statewide, Montana often lags behind other more populous states when companies launch new products or services, especially when they're tech-based. For example, ride-share companies Uber and Lyft, which launched in 2009 and 2012 respectively, didn't arrive in Montana until 2016. 

Uber's meal delivery service, UberEATS arrived in the fall of 2017. Instacart first launched in 2012 and so far is the only app-based retail delivery service in the area.

Summer tourists

Billings had a mild summer in more ways than one. 

Tourism in Billings and the region this summer was flat, just under where it was last year, a dip business leaders, shop owners and hoteliers anticipated — Garth Brooks sold out five shows in three days last year at MetraPark's Rimrock Auto Arena.

Still, the long days, warm nights and all the events at MetraPark and downtown venues inevitably bring in crowds, even if they're not Garth-sized crowds.  

Visit Montana, which operates through the Billings Chamber of Commerce, measures tourism by tracking hotel occupancy through the state's Lodging Facility Use Tax. It shows a flat tourist season but Billings was still a regional draw. 

Occupancy rates for Billings-area hotels typically hover around 70 to 75 percent during the summer. This summer occupancy sat between 68 and 69 percent. 

Hotels see Trump bump

While the city may not have had Garth Brooks this year, it did have Donald Trump. The day the rally in Billings was announced by the White House, Boothill Inn and Suites booked up completely. The hotel sits across the street from Rimrock Auto Arena, where the rally was held. 

Clocktower Inn, a Best Western Plus hotel, saw a similar bump. Steve Wahrlich, the general manager, said his occupancy was up roughly 35 percent the week Trump was in town compared to the same week last year.

The Northern Hotel had to turn people away. Already-booked tour groups were in town to visit the region, leaving little room for additional guests.

Hutterites

A year ago, the Golden Valley Hutterite Colony in Ryegate launched a steel fabrication operation after leaders there realized they needed to diversify their mostly agricultural-based operations.

Hutterites have farmed and raised livestock on the Northern Plains of North and South Dakota, Eastern Montana and southwestern Canada for more than 100 years. 

But agriculture hasn't sustained them like it used to, so leaders at the Golden Valley Colony decided they needed to branch out. Their facility produces steel siding, trim and roofs all cut and formed to fit for a contractor or homeowner.

Introducing a state-of-the-art steel fabrication and production facility to an agricultural operation, which runs on technology and practices that were pioneered, in some cases, generations ago, presents myriad issues. 

In order to launch Valley Steel, the colony needed to take orders and correspond with contractors and customers electronically. And so for the first time, the internet has come to the Golden Valley Colony. 

To encourage accountability, colony leaders set up a computer in an open room that had windows and a door with no locks. And they set up strict filters on internet searches to limit what the colony could access. Working with the internet service provider, leaders also monitor the computer's internet history.

Recycling takes a global hit

A decision in China had stark ramification for Billings this year. Earth First Aid Recycling in Billings saw its business plummet this summer following a move by China a year ago to no longer import recyclables.

China's decision flooded the recycling market in the western hemisphere with material. That material, which once sold at $160 per ton, started to pile up at processing centers and almost immediately saw its value drop by more than half. Earlier this summer it was selling for $71 per ton. 

At that price, Earth First Aid Recycling can't turn a profit. The company collects recyclable materials from drop boxes and residential customers in Billings and sells it to regional processing centers. Over the summer when prices started falling, Earth First Aid was forced to lay off four of his eight employees, raise rates on his customers and take out an operational loan from the bank to keep Earth First Aid afloat. 

Suds Hut closes 

For many longtime Billings residents, 2018 was the end of an era. The Suds Hut, which has occupied its little corner on Broadwater Avenue for 42 years, closed. 

Owner Charlie Schmidt made the decision after struggling for more than a year to find a good cook and reliable servers. 

Schmidt opened the Suds Hut on May 7, 1976, and the bar and restaurant have always felt very much of its time. The dining room is all dark woods and ornate design with an open fireplace set to one side. 

Next door to the Suds Hut is a gaming lounge with electronic keno and poker machines and a bar. Next to that is a barber shop. Schmidt owns them all and said the gaming lounge and barber shop will remain open. 

But all of it is for sale. Schmidt owns the building and the liquor and gaming license. If someone buys the Suds Hut it could reopen but he's done with it. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.