Fortune Small Business
The cover of Fortune Small Business magazine features Billings, which has topped 50 competitors to be named the best small city in which to start a business. It features Kevin Toohill, a co-owner of Beartooth Mapping of Billings.

Billings has topped 50 competitors as the best small city in which to start a business, according to a cover article in the November issue of Fortune Small Business magazine.

Two local businesses are featured as success stories in the article - Beartooth Mapping and Rand's Custom Hats.

Rand's is an established family business that uses the Internet to sell handmade hats to cowboys, movie stars and Western fans around the globe. But this hat-making enterprise also would be at home in unwired frontier Billings before Montana Territory become a state.

Owner Ritch Rand said he likes the know-your-neighbor attitude in Billings.

"I can walk into the bank and visit with the vice president if I need to," Rand said in the article.

In contrast, Beartooth Mapping and its Web site, MyTopo.com, couldn't do business out of Billings or any city without access to high-speed Internet with backup capacities.

FSB magazine teamed up with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to conduct a survey that bucks the prevailing notion that Internet technology makes location meaningless to a business.

"Wrong. Location matters more than ever before. The Great Recession redrew the map of America," the article said, adding that the subprime mortgage crisis alone sunk entire towns.

Only 42 percent of U.S. entrepreneurs think their business can thrive best in its current location, according to FSB's "The Best Places to Launch" article.

The survey compared cities with 250,000 or fewer residents on income, taxes, crime, work force quality and foreclosures. By those measures, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota triumphed.

Bismarck, N.D., took second place behind Billings, followed by Fargo, N.D; Rapid City, S.D.; and Sioux Falls, S.D., in fifth place. Midland, Texas, came in sixth, and Missoula ranked No. 10.

Billings ranked high because Montana has the fourth-lowest foreclosure rate and the sixth-most-favorable tax climate in the country, according to The Tax Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

Negatives included the city's general isolation and lack of price competition in airline fares out of Billings Logan International Airport.

Winter wasn't mentioned, at least not early in the story. The entire article - including the worst places to start a business - wasn't available for review Monday because it hadn't been released yet on FSB's Web site.

Steve Arveschoug, executive director of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority and its sister organization, the Big Sky Economic Development Corp., said he was in Reno, Nev., last week at the annual convention of economic development leaders from the United States and Canada. Even before this article emerged, other economic development directors were a bit envious about the recognition Billings is receiving and its relative insulation from this recession's worst punches, Arveschoug said.

"It's great that someone else points it out for us. You can't pay for that kind of publicity," he said.

Kevin Toohill graced the cover of the latest FSB magazine, and an inside page featured Toohill and Beartooth Mapping co-owner Paige Darden, rolled-up topo maps in hand, standing on the Rimrocks.

"We're not a storefront, so our business could be located anywhere," Darden said.

"It was neat to be featured as part of the Billings business community, and we're glad to represent this city," Toohill said.

The private mapping company, which started in Red Lodge in 1999, has been operating in Billings for three years and grosses between $2 million and $3 million a year.

Darden, who used to work in Washington, D.C., said she loves the luxury of mixing an old-fashioned life with a high-tech job.

"I can walk my kids to school, walk back home, fill up my coffee mug and still get to work in time by 9," she said.

Contact Jan Falstad at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com or 657-1306.

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