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While dozens of voters lined up inside the Yellowstone County Courthouse two blocks away, 150 Billings business people and community leaders gathered for a forum on the local economy.

Billings is a better place than most to be riding out this recession, said panelists speaking at the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce forum at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. Their locally optimistic comments concurred with what chamber members said in response to a survey conducted Oct. 28-Nov. 3. According to the chamber, among members responding to the online survey:

• 71 percent said the national economy is weak or extremely weak, 22 percent were neutral, and 6 percent said the national economy is strong.

• 8 percent viewed the Billings economy as weak, 37 percent were neutral, 52 percent said it is strong, and 3 percent said "extremely strong."

• Asked about credit availability for their businesses, 1 percent said credit is easier to get now than it was a year ago, 22 percent said it's harder to get, 49 percent said it's about the same, and 28 percent were unsure.

• 15 percent said they plan to reduce their work force, and 18 percent expected to add to employee numbers. The rest expected employee numbers to be unchanged over the next six months.

The National Association of Home Builders has projected that Montana will be one of the first four states to emerge from the current housing construction slowdown, Billings home builder Jeff Junkert told the Tuesday noon forum.

Although fewer building permits have been issued this year in Billings for new single-family houses, there's been a slight increase in permits for duplexes and multifamily housing, Junkert noted.

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There appears to be pent-up demand for new homes in Billings, said Keith Cook, region president of First Interstate Bank. Cook noted that the Billings rental housing market is tight, with a vacancy rate around 3 percent, an indication that more renters would buy houses when they are available.

"There's still money available for business loans," Cook assured his business audience. But he said banks now are putting just as much emphasis on deposit growth as on loan growth.

Billings folks expect the leaders they elect to responsibly address economic policy issues. But our concerns are reasonably tempered by the knowledge that the effects of the national recession have so far been milder here. The economic downturn is a different story locally than it is nationally. That knowledge should bolster continued confidence that can help keep the Billings economy strong.

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