This issue of the Big Sky Business Journal reports on the end of a proposed project that makes one wonder if everyone understands the nature of economies and the importance of setting community priorities right.
A plan to build bike trails or a pedestrian travel way of some sort through the east end of Billings, utilizing a route that currently serves a rail spur was shot down by opposition from the businesses, property owners and residents of the area. That the value of the rail spur to business in Billings was so totally lost on “planners,” should give us all pause.
In the past, the lack of appreciation for what has been happening in east Billings was disturbing, as visionaries talked about a new look for the area. In the process of making the comprehensive development plan to guide a tax increment finance district for east Billings, there seemed little discussion about what was attracting light industrial businesses and how to sustain that momentum. The focus was on parks, bike trails, museums and “workforce” housing. Not that the tax increment district to develop infrastructure was not needed — but there before the planners was a marvel to behold that they seemed not to see.
For a couple of decades at least, despite the lack of sewer, water and paved streets, the area had become a kind of incubator for entrepreneurial activity. There are, today, a number of strong and wonderful enterprises, that are fundamental to the city’s economic base that saw their start in east Billings. The rail spur was important in serving some of those companies, still is, and could become even more important in the future, given reports about how rare and costly rail spurs are.
The invisibility of the value of a rail spur is not unique to east Billings. At the site of the former Corette Plant another rail spur is also being dismissed, as visionaries once again pursue a recreational area of some sort as being of greater value to the community than an industrial park. Not only does that site have a rail spur, but it has all of the other features that we have been told by a study done by Big Sky Economic Development (EDA) are essential for an industrial park. We are also told Billings is in dire need of industrial park space.
As the EDA has advocated for the development of an industrial park, they have said that there are few good locations remaining in the county for an industrial park. It has also been said that it is not reasonable to expect businesses to bear the very expensive cost of building a rail spur. The cost must be subsidized by taxpayers, they say. So if that is so, how do we come to a point where we are so quick to abandon two existing rail spurs – also at taxpayer expense?
Bike trails, parks, walkways, museums etc. are wonderful to have but they are the amenities of a community. They are not what come first. They are the cart that is pulled by the economic engine of new and growing basic industry, which are usually found in industrial parks. Manufacturers are often exporters that bring new money into a community, the money from which tax dollars are drawn to build bike trails and parks.
The current refrain one hears about the necessity of amenities is that they are needed to retain our young people and to attract a skilled workforce. But our youth do not leave the community because they have nowhere to ride their bikes, they leave because of a lack of opportunity. Opportunity for jobs, careers and good wages – that is what will draw and keep good workers.
The fact that Montana rests at the lowest rung for wages in the nation, surely has as much, if not more, to do with the inability to attract workers than whether they have a place to ride their bikes or enjoy a concert in the park. The amenities will come once a community has a firm economic foundation that will generate the tax revenues and philanthropic contributions necessary to build them.
It was great to hear the providers of jobs and business owners speak out in defense of what they need to sustain all that they do, and the City Council and County Commissioners are to be commended for heeding them.

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