The Center Square

Startups are a significant driver of the U.S. economy. Each year, thousands of entrepreneurs launch new businesses that create jobs and spur innovation and efficiency across the market. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 420,000 startups accounted for 2.2 million new jobs in 2018.

Unfortunately, entrepreneurship in the U.S. has been declining for decades. In the late 1970s, the startup formation rate in the U.S. – defined as the number of new firms in a given year divided by the total number of firms – was nearly 14 percent. Four decades later, the rate was just above 8 percent.

At the top of the list for metropolitan areas with the best start-up rates is Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, Nevada at 11.4 percent. Among small cities Bozeman, Montana is ranked ninth with an 8.4 percent rate. St. George, Utah is No. 1 among small cities.

One of the major factors contributing to this trend is firm concentration. In recent decades, many sectors have shown a trend toward consolidation and greater concentration in the market, making large firms even larger and more successful through economies of scale, network effects, and other incumbent advantages.

Economic downturns also tend to slow startup formation, and the Great Recession’s effects on new business creation have proven to be especially stifling over the last decade. Unlike in past recessions, when a dip in startup activity has been followed by a period of growth, the overall startup formation rate fell in the wake of the Great Recession and has more or less remained flat at around 8 percent since. With less economic security due to a long, uncertain recovery, many potential entrepreneurs chose to minimize their risk and forgo new business opportunities. This is especially true of many would-be founders now in their late 20s and 30s, who graduated in a poor job market with large debt burdens.

This past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought even more economic hardship, and the unique circumstances of this downturn have created an even more complicated picture. In addition to the typical barriers to entrepreneurship that a recession creates, different industries face divergent fortunes in the era of shutdowns and social distancing. Certain sectors have become even more entrenched in daily life, creating new opportunities for growth in areas like e-commerce, video conferencing, online education, and collaboration tools. On the other hand, COVID-19 is likely to further suppress startup activity in many sectors like accommodation, food services, and retail. In recent years, these fields have experienced stagnant or declining startup formation rates. Today, the prospect of entering these industries will become even more daunting with consumer concerns about health and safety stifling demand and increasing overhead costs.

One of the major factors contributing to this trend is firm concentration. In recent decades, many sectors have shown a trend toward consolidation and greater concentration in the market, making large firms even larger and more successful through economies of scale, network effects, and other incumbent advantages.

Economic downturns also tend to slow startup formation, and the Great Recession’s effects on new business creation have proven to be especially stifling over the last decade. Unlike in past recessions, when a dip in startup activity has been followed by a period of growth, the overall startup formation rate fell in the wake of the Great Recession and has more or less remained flat at around 8 percent since. With less economic security due to a long, uncertain recovery, many potential entrepreneurs chose to minimize their risk and forgo new business opportunities. This is especially true of many would-be founders now in their late 20s and 30s, who graduated in a poor job market with large debt burdens.

This past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought even more economic hardship, and the unique circumstances of this downturn have created an even more complicated picture. In addition to the typical barriers to entrepreneurship that a recession creates, different industries face divergent fortunes in the era of shutdowns and social distancing. Certain sectors have become even more entrenched in daily life, creating new opportunities for growth in areas like e-commerce, video conferencing, online education, and collaboration tools. On the other hand, COVID-19 is likely to further suppress startup activity in many sectors like accommodation, food services, and retail. In recent years, these fields have experienced stagnant or declining startup formation rates. Today, the prospect of entering these industries will become even more daunting with consumer concerns about health and safety stifling demand and increasing overhead costs.

New startup formation is distributed unevenly across geographies as well as industries. Most of the states seeing the highest rates of new business creation are based in the western and southern U.S., led by Nevada (10.39 percent) and Florida (10.16 percent). Many of these states offer some combination of business-friendly policies, low individual and corporate tax rates, relatively low costs to operate, good educational institutions, and population growth that provides both a customer base and a market for labor.

Unsurprisingly, at the metro level, most of the leading hubs for startup formation are found in the states with the highest levels of startup activity. Many locations in the West and South continue to see strong rates of new business creation and associated job growth. To find out which metros are leading the way, researchers at Roofstock calculated the trailing five-year average startup formation—defined as the number of new firms in a given year divided by the total number of firms. The research team also analyzed the impact of startup activity on job growth.

A new report reveals that the Rocky Mountain region’s middle market businesses are experiencing faster economic recovery and stronger business performance than the national average. 

In 2020, 49% of Rocky Mountain middle market businesses experienced year-over-year revenue growth and 30% added new jobs. This compares to the national average of 46% of middle market businesses that experienced revenue growth and 22% that expanded their workforce over this same period. 

The Rocky Mountain region middle market represents 10,200 companies located in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

The report — Rocky Mountain Region Middle Market 2020 Performance and 2021 Outlook — comes from Dietrich Partners, a Denver management consulting firm, and the National Center for the Middle Market at The Ohio State University Max M. Fisher College of Business.

The region’s middle market executives also report stronger optimism about the future, projecting 8.2% revenue growth in 2021. This growth rate is double the national average and stronger than the region’s historical projections. Further, nearly half of the region’s middle market businesses are planning to add new jobs in 2021, compared to one-third of their peers across the country that are projecting employment growth. 

“The survey data coupled with more than 40 qualitative middle market executive interviews shine a light on the opportunity ahead for the Rocky Mountain Region,” said Celia Dietrich, executive chair and founder of Dietrich Partners. “The optimistic outlook we are seeing from executives is a strong indicator that many middle market businesses have quickly moved out of a defensive business survival mode and into building forward momentum with longer-term business strategy in mind. As the economic recovery continues, businesses are gaining confidence to engage in a more comprehensive strategic planning process in order to strengthen their competitive advantage for the years ahead.”

In planning for the future, 56% of the Rocky Mountain region’s middle market executives report a willingness to invest immediately rather than holding cash. The survey finds that information technology is the top destination for investment dollars across the middle market nationally but investing in acquisitions is nearly twice as likely in the Rocky Mountain region.

“The Rocky Mountain region’s middle market businesses have historically experienced stronger performance than the segment as a whole, with higher revenue and employment growth between 2016 to 2018. Interestingly the region’s middle market businesses experienced declining performance beginning in 2019 and into 2020, yet have experienced a faster recovery and ended the year with a slightly higher revenue growth than the national average,” said NCMM Managing Director Doug Farren. “While the Rocky Mountain region is not immune to the tumultuous economic impacts of the past year and overall experienced dramatic decline in performance alongside the rest of the nation, the region’s middle market is poised well as we continue the economic recovery.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) was another element that was top-of-mind for businesses this past year and was included in the Middle Market Indicator survey for the first time. The Rocky Mountain region’s middle market shares strong views on the topic and is more likely than other areas of the country to have DE&I policies in place. For example, 59% of the region’s middle market companies report having a documented process for ensuring a diverse slate of candidates are interviewed for open positions, compared to the national average of 41%.

The middle market is comprised of companies with annual revenues between $10 million and $1 billion and is a large market segment that drives the health of local economies and generates a disproportionate share of jobs. The region’s middle market businesses employ 2.8 million people and generate a total of $498 billion in annual revenues. 

No person shall be deprived of the right to examine documents or to observe the deliberations of all public bodies or agencies of state government and its subdivisions, except in cases in which the demand of individual privacy clearly exceeds the merits of public disclosure.” Montana Law

By Evelyn Pyburn

Mid-March we recognize National Sunshine week – it is a time to focus on the importance of open public meetings and public document availability.

Montana is at the leading edge when it comes to having good public information laws. Our public information requirements are more stringent than federal laws or the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but sadly Montana does not lead the way in complying with those laws. A (2019) study conducted by Logicull ranked the State of Montana among the least compliant with our own laws.

Having spent many years reporting on a wide variety of public entities, I know without doubt, that there is nothing more important to assure sound, honest government than shining light on all that happens in government. The Bill of Rights and honest democratic elections are very important, but even those things cannot be assured unless the public is informed about what government is doing.  Checks and balances in how government is structured is also important, but even that can be useless if there is no “sunshine” on all proceedings and decisions.

Just think about it. How can citizens be expected to vote on candidates and issues if they do not have accurate information? Without unfettered information the idea of democratic elections is but a charade (something that should be just as readily understood when information and communication platforms are being censored).

I have learned a lot in observing how public bodies function and I have seen how devastating a lack of transparency can be, most especially those serving in a public capacity, who are often responsible for violating the law. In fact, I would refuse to serve on a public body that was not open in order to protect myself from the consequences.  Not unlike other aspects of life, avoiding truth has a way of boomeranging sooner or later, and often in ways least anticipated and most unpleasant.

Most people do not realize how powerful our laws make our citizens, and that they do have the right to know – they have the right to be powerful in their own defense! The fact that an informed citizenry is a powerful citizenry is the primary reason that public officials hide information. That alone should convince one about how important the right to know is.

One of the most amazing experiences I ever had involved informing people about their right to know. It happened during my earliest years as a reporter when I wasn’t all that confident about things. My editor, as a matter of routine, gave all reporters business cards with the Montana public information law printed on it. At a meeting in Belgrade, Montana, a newly formed garbage district board wanted to hold a meeting to do things contrary to what the public wanted. There was standing room only in the meeting room and the board was frustrated in its efforts to ignore that public, and so arbitrarily decided they could avoid the problem by moving to another room.

Everyone in the room sat dejected about not being able to be part of the meeting. I knew the board was violating law, but I was timid about speaking up. I pulled out my handy little card thinking about what to do. The gentleman sitting next to me glanced over and began avidly reading it. I passed him the card so he could better read it. He then passed the card to the next guy, and then got up and followed the board members down the hall. The next guy, after reading the card, did likewise. And, one after another, as the card was passed along, everyone followed suit. It was a thrilling moment, as I saw firsthand the power of knowledge.

A lot of the public believes that open meetings and public documents are made available only to the media. Nothing could be further from the truth. Media has traditionally been the defender of those rights but they apply to absolutely everyone and everyone should view themselves as having an important role to play in assuring that every government official and agency complies with public information laws.

Unfortunately, in pursuing public information you should expect push back.  FOIA advocacy groups report that not only can one expect it but “When it comes to compliance with open records laws, the barriers put up to obstruct requests (or lack thereof), and the general difficulty of making government records public, States vary wildly.”

“Come back tomorrow,” is a common put off aimed at discouraging. But you should know that information generally should be available during reasonable, regular business hours.

You cannot be required to explain why you want the information, nor for that matter do you even have to identify yourself.

While a government employee may declare they have to get approval of a supervisor, that is not a requirement of law. Public information is public information, and fundamentally it is every government employee’s obligation to provide it.

While it is commonly accepted that you can be charged for costs involved, such as copying charges, the charges must be true costs. You cannot, for example, be charged an outrageous per hour cost pertaining to the amount of time a bureaucrat spends getting the information.

Having said that, many FOIA advocates believe there should be no charge at all by government to produce information to citizens… in fact, providing public information should not only be part of their regular duties but a top priority. The Montana legislature, however, did pass a law allowing for agencies to ask citizens to reimburse for costs.

There is a limiting provision to Montana’s public information laws and that is to protect the individual’s right to privacy. As one can imagine in an  attempt to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and an individual’s right to privacy, the competing provisions often lead to conflict. But court cases in Montana have quite often strengthened the citizen’s right to know.

So while a government employee’s personal information regarding health or address, family, religion, etc. is not public information, that they are a government employee, their job description, salary and benefits, or job performance are all public information. In fact one Montana court case concluded that even the job evaluation of a school superintendent should be open to the public and the results should be a matter of public record. Another case concluded that even an insurance company’s nondisclosure requirements in a settlement with the county was not valid – the settlement has to be a matter of public record.

Government quite often likes to claim that they can’t provide information such as who holds licenses or permits and their addresses or incomes, etc. on the grounds that it is private information but at that point there emerges a quandary, because since government is requiring the information or the fees or otherwise exercising control, it is a public concern. But, it is also private information. The fact of the matter is the individual’s privacy has indeed been violated, but it has been violated by government, and the public’s right to know should not be sacrificed because government has over-reached what its authority should be.

As government gains more and more power and over-reaches on a routine basis with no checks, this is likely to become an increasing dilemma and stands as a potential threat to the very fundamentals of freedom of information. There is only one thing that stands in the way of losing this most important of citizen rights and that is you and me using that right and demanding its adherence.

by Evelyn Pyburn

Getting beef from farm to your dinner plate has always been a rather complicated and intricate business, but as consumers demand and expect more, there is another dimension being added to its complexity.

With over 65 percent of consumers saying they want to know more about the foods they eat, a relatively new industry is emerging, one that consumers should know more about in order to reap its benefits. The new dimension is third party verifiers — companies that monitor and audit producers of beef and other products to make sure that the claims they make about their product are true. Otherwise, questions Lainie White, owner of the Great Alone Cattle Company, “How would you know that what I say is true?”

There is much changing about the beef industry and in order to better familiarize consumers with what is going on, White recently sponsored a “Local Meat” seminar. White owns and operates a four-generation cattle ranch at Two Dot, Montana. “Our cattle are raised in the fresh air and running streams where the Big Sky brushes the Crazy Mountains of Montana,” reads their website, “The company and the ranch work to partner with our community of customers so you can enjoy all of the benefits of beef for health, well-being, and a great meal while enhancing our ranching legacy.”

Explaining third party verifiers at the event was Kelsey (Haughian) Aye, a customer verification specialist for Where Food Comes From, a top provider of certification and verification services based in Colorado.

Aye oversees and assigns auditors to visit farms and ranches (about 400 in Montana) to look at their operations, know the people involved, examine their documentation and records to make sure that they adhere to a specific set of standards. That they are actually doing what they claim to do. They authenticate and make transparent to consumers information about their food. Consumers have a right to trust that the information they get is authentic, accurate, and unbiased, said Aye.

Third party verification adds to the cost of production but producers who do it find their products bring more at market, more than enough to make it worthwhile. But, most say they pursue the process, not for increased returns, but because they have a passion for providing high quality products raised in sustainable ways that respect the land as well as their customers.  At the same time achieving all those goals imposes greater work and many additional costs, for which the producer should be compensated.

Aye said that in their consumer surveys, when asked whether they will pay more for products labeled as being verified and certified, consumers usually say they will pay one to two dollars more above regular price. Their surveys also indicate that most consumers like knowing details about where and how their food is grown. They like to know “the story,” she said.

The service is available not only to the beef industry but to a wide range of other producers as well, including poultry, pork, lamb, and, vegetable producers, honey, vineyards, flowers, etc. Where Food Comes From is an umbrella organization for several divisions each of which targets a specific industry, such as the IMI Global Beef Passport Program which certifies beef as meeting a set of standards called BEEF CARE. There are also CARE standards for other products such as DAIRY CARE, PORK CARE, POULTRY CARE.

There are a number of aspects of IMI Global, which has been in business for 22 years. Each program specializes in a specific type of livestock producer.  Not only does each type of production have specific needs, but specialized auditors are trained to understand those needs so they can intimately understand each unique business.

IMI is the largest installation resource company in North America. They offer turnkey installation expertise and OEM product deployment in fields such as manufacturing, supply chain, automation and robotics.

To make sure producers meet CARE standards auditors explore three basic aspects of a producers operation:

—Animal Care. They make sure the animals are as healthy and content as possible. Things they look at are spacing, access to food and water, nutrition plans, how animals are transported, etc.

— Environmental Stewardship. Consumers want to know that the farms and ranches have procedures and management plans in place. .

— People and Community. They make sure that the producer treats employees right, with worker safety protocols, emergency preparedness, and succession planning.

All programs require that an animal have an EID tag or in some manner can verify its age. EID tags are small “button-like” tags that are placed in the ear, although increasingly electronic cattle tags are used. The tags must be attached before an animal leaves its birth ranch and it is used to monitor the animal through each stage of processing.

In order to be verified as natural beef a calf must never have had any growth hormones, nor antibiotics. No ionophores (feed enhancers) or animal by-products. Many of the restrictions and certifications of them are required by many countries before they will accept beef as an import.

Certified meat products found at the meat counter may or may not be labeled as such, but whatever label a producer wants to put on their package, it must be approved by the USDA. They can even dictate the colors of a logo, explained Aye.

Montana’s unemployment rate dropped in February to 3.9%, after falling to 4.0% in January. The unemployment rate for the U.S. was 6.2% in February.

Yellowstone County is ranked 23rd among counties for the lowest unemployment rate at 4.4 percent, which is about .6 percent higher than a year ago. There are 76,274 people employed in the county which is 2400 less than last year.

McCone County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 2.3 percent which is -0.1 percent lower than last year, currently employing 954 people. Glacier County has the highest unemployment in the state at 10.2 percent, which is 1.7 percent higher than a year ago with 4,541 people employed.

Yellowstone County’s unemployment rate is higher than the 3.4 percent rate in Gallatin County. The rates in other urban counties are Lewis & Clark County, 4.5 percent, Cascade 4.8 percent, Missoula 5.2 percent, Silver Bow, 5.5 percent.

Nationally, Montana’s “bounced back” 8th best. South Dakota’s has bounced back the best and Hawaii’s the least best, according to wallethub.com.

“Montana’s unemployment rate continues its downward trend, but too many of our businesses are struggling to find workers,” Governor Greg Gianforte said. “Getting Montanans back to work in good-paying jobs and improving access to trades education and apprenticeships are top priorities as we get Montana open for business.”

Governor Gianforte has worked with the legislature to address the growing skilled labor shortage in Montana by creating the Montana Trades Education Credit (M-TEC). A central element of the governor’s Roadmap to the Montana Comeback budget, the bill, H.B. 252, provides $1 million per year in 50-percent credits to businesses for their employees to learn a trade. The funding level will support as many as 1,000 scholarships annually. Under the program, employers and employees can decide on training that is best for the business and the employee.

“Expanding trades education in Montana and empowering our workforce are critical. I look forward to this bill getting across the finish line and to my desk,” Governor Gianforte said.

Total employment in February fell by 965, and the labor force shrank by 1,521 workers. Total employment includes payroll, agricultural, and self-employed workers. 

After updating January’s preliminary estimates, payroll employment was unchanged in February, remaining at 477,700 jobs. The manufacturing and accommodation and food services industries each added 500 jobs, which were offset by job losses in construction and financial activities.

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased by 0.4% in February, driven by increases in gasoline prices and a rising energy index. Over the last 12 months the CPI-U has increased 1.7%. The index for all items less food and energy, referred to as core inflation, increased 0.1% in February.

Stockman Bank of Montana has once again been awarded the highest (5-Star) rating for financial strength and stability from the nation’s premier bank rating firm, BauerFinancial, Inc.

This rating recognizes Stockman Bank for excellence in such areas as capital adequacy, profitability, asset quality and much more. As a leader in local, community banking services, Stockman Bank has consistently earned and maintained this 5-Star rating for 50 consecutive quarters.

As a result, Stockman Bank has received an even higher designation as an “Exceptional Performance Bank”, a status reserved for institutions that have earned Bauer’s highest rating consistently for at least 10 consecutive years.

“This is indeed reflective of Stockman Bank of Montana’s dedication and commitment, not only to its customers, but to the entire community”, reflects Karen Dorway, president of BauerFinancial. “Community banks, like Stockman Bank of Montana, have been on the front lines doing what is necessary to help their neighbors and friends. This is the type of devotion you will only find in a community bank.”

Stockman Bank is Montana’s largest, family-owned, community bank, with 36 full-service locations across the state. Founded in 1953, Stockman is uniquely focused on Montana, with comprehensive banking products and services, along with state-of-the-art online and mobile banking, wealth management and insurance services.

By Lowell Cooke, Coldwell Banker The Brokers

Faced with an obvious housing shortage it isn’t too surprising that Billings will undoubtedly see a Construction Boom this summer. Evidence is already mounting.

New construction permits in the Billings Metro area have increased steadily in the months from June 2020 to December 2020.  There were 237 permits issued from June 2020 to December 2020, while there were only 131 issued in the same period in 2019.  This increase of 106 permits is an 80% increase over 2019 for that period.  Already in the first two months of 2021, 49 building permits were issued with only 22 in 2020, or up 122%! 

Say Billings is able to maintain an 80% increase in permits over 2020, we could see over 600 permits issued in 2021.  There have not been that many permits issued in 18 years when there were 601 in 2003.

The building permits for the Billings Metro area don’t take into account the homes being built outside the city jurisdiction, where no permit is required.  There is substantial activity occurring on the outskirts also.

February Recap

The inventory of homes on the market continues to remain at record low levels.  As of this writing, there were 120 single family homes for sale in the Billings MLS, Metro area.  There were 168 closed sales this February in the entire MLS system, compared to slightly more in February 2020-176 closed sales.  The number of listings taken dropped to 213 compared to February 2020 of 228.  The year to date, listings taken is down 11.3%, with 439 listings taken this year vs. 495 through the first 2 months of 2020.

Appreciation,  Average Sales Price Still Climbing

Want a reason to sell?  How about the healthy gain in appreciation?  The average, year over year appreciation has jumped again in February to 10.5% for the entire MLS areas.  Januarys was 9.2%.  Great news for sellers, not so much for buying.  The 12-month, year over year average sales price is now at $296,393 compared to $268,314 in February 2020.  That is over a $28,000 increase in one year!

Want to Build?

If you are considering building, there is no shortage of available lots for sale.  There are just under 400 lots for sale in the Billings MLS, Metro area.  With the uptick in building, builders are telling me the challenge is finding the subcontractors available to build the homes as well as shortages and price increases in building materials.  Word to the wise, do not try to be your own contractor.  If builders are having difficulty finding subs, can you imagine trying to do it on your own while you are paying the interest on the construction loan?  Best to find a reputable builder (and there are many) who will hold the construction loan and deal with the delays.  It would be my estimation you should expect to see a completion in construction to take over 6 months.

Watercraft inspection stations are opening up across Montana for the 2021 season. Just which inspection stations are open can be seen on a FWP website map. FWP officials claim inspection stations are the state’s first step in preventing the movement of aquatic invasive species (AIS), which can have devastating impacts on Montana waterways. A report on activities from the 2019 season show the agency performed over 113,000 watercraft inspections and intercepted 16 mussel-fouled vessels.

Senate Bill 379 has raised some eyebrows of the Montana PSC and environmental groups as it would allow owners of coal-fired power assets to recover costs for any underappreciated value and expenses from energy consumers. The bill would allow the utility to recover market value for new ownership of a coal power asset.

Watercraft inspection stations are opening up across Montana for the 2021 season. Just which inspection stations are open can be seen on a FWP website map. FWP officials claim inspection stations are the state’s first step in preventing the movement of aquatic invasive species (AIS), which can have devastating impacts on Montana waterways. A report on activities from the 2019 season show the agency performed over 113,000 watercraft inspections and intercepted 16 mussel-fouled vessels.

Canadian coal company Teck Resources has paid a $60 million fine after pleading guilty to pollution discharges that have killed nearly all the fish in nearby waters. Canadian investigators found the mining company discharged hazardous amounts of selenium and calcite into the Fording River from two coal mines in the Elk Valley, just north of Eureka, Montana. Some of that selenium has been connected to fish damage in Montana Koocanusa Reservoir and the Kootenai River. The decision came in a Canadian federal court in Fernie, British Columbia. The fine is 10 times as large as any previous punishment imposed under Canada’s Fisheries Act.

 The city of Williston, North Dakota has negotiated a contract with Delta Airline to bring flights back to Williston. The one-year agreement promises to subsidize SkyWest Airlines which has partnered with Delta for flights to Minneapolis. If passenger numbers fail to make it profitable the city will reimburse losses to the airlines on a quarterly basis.

Revolving Loan Fund.  In February, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) awarded a $1.2 million CARES Act Recovery Assistance grant to the Northern Rocky Mountain Economic Development District, Bozeman, to capitalize and administer a Revolving Loan Fund (RLF).  Businesses adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic in Gallatin and Park counties will be eligible for these funds. Special recognition goes to the City of Belgrade, which provided $250,000 for the local match requirement. The Department of Commerce estimates that the total investment will create 40 jobs, retain 125 jobs, and generate $10 million in private investment.

Governor Greg Gianforte and Department of Administration Director Misty Ann Giles have announced the appointment of Kevin Gilbertson to serve as Chief Information Officer (CIO) for the State of Montana.

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) announced  a proposal to widen shoulders and add rumble strips to about 7.6 miles of Highway S 421, north of Lodge Grass. The project begins approximately seven miles south of Garryowen 7.6 miles ending approximately one mile northwest of Lodge Grass.  Construction is tentatively planned for 2024 depending on completion of design and availability of funds.

NorthWestern Energy will begin upgrading the Montana Street substation in Butte to enhance reliability for 6,000 electric customers in the area.

North Dakota’s daily crude output for January was 1.147 million barrels, a 4% drop from December. The decline was attributed to high winds in January that caused power outages that interrupted oil production. The outages knocked about 50,000 barrels per day offline.

The U.S. oil pricing benchmark, West Texas Intermediate, has risen above $60 per barrel, where it sat at the start of 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic hit and sent prices crashing. Experts view the current price as a blip. Wells idled during the pandemic are expected to be brought back online. Uncertainty about the Bakken reins as ND producers worry about the potential shutdown of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a prospect that could come out of a court hearing slated for April 9. Producers are considering having to move more oil by rail or potentially trucking it from the Bakken across Interstate 94 past Bismarck and then south to Linton.

by Evelyn Pyburn

In the coming decade there is much that is going to change about travel through the Billings I-90 corridor.  Interchanges will change, highways broadened and bridges reconstructed – all are projects in the planning stages, with some already underway.

While much has been heard about the improvements planned to the I-90/ Johnson Lane Interchange as part of the Billings Bypass project, there’s not as much awareness about the other improvements in the Lockwood area and along I-90 through Billings.

The projects emerged from a 2012 study about future needs for Billings’ traffic as it impacts I-90. The projects will accommodate increases in traffic and improve overall operation and safety.

The stretch of I-90 that is involved was built in the 1960s and last paved in 2000.

The Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) plans to widen from two lanes to three lanes a stretch of I-90 from the Johnson Lane Interchange to the South 27th Street Interchange.

The first phase of widening the Interstate will be on the west end from the Lockwood Interchange to the 27th Street Interchange, which includes the reconstruction of the bridges across the Yellowstone River and the Talen Railroad Spur. Final plans for widening the interstate and building the bridges are to be completed by the end of March and bids may be let sometime this summer. HDR is the engineering firm designing the project.

The plan to add additional two lanes to I-90 avoids having to gain more rights-of-way by expanding into space that is currently the median. 

Following a recent public hearing the Lockwood Steering Committee began a petition to MDT objecting to the fact that the plans for the bridges are without accommodation for pedestrians or bicycles. They are asking MDT and HDR engineers to address the common vision of the community for the future of Billings and Lockwood by including pedestrian/bike access.

Public comment during the hearing also brought up the multi-modal issue and MDT officials and engineers said that the issue had not been overlooked but they had determined not to include the multi-modal access because of increases to the cost and the fact that it would require gaining additional rights-of-way extending the time frame, as well as the cost, and it could have possible flood plain impacts in providing trails to get to the crossings. A special public meeting may be held to further explore this public concern.

Currently construction of the bridges is scheduled to begin in fall 2021 and will be completed in phases. One bridge will remain open while the other is demolished and rebuilt to accommodate both lanes of traffic. The entire project is tentatively scheduled to be completed in 2024. Bridge reconstruction will comprise most of the construction effort and cost, which is projected at $60 million, total.

During construction, two-lane, two-way traffic will be maintained, except during the winter shut down period when the interstate will reopen to four lanes for safety reasons.

It’s been widely heralded that the reconstruction of the Johnson Lane Interchange is to be the first Diverging Diamond Interchange in Montana, but it was announced at a recent public hearing that the preferred alternative being considered for the Lockwood Interchange — where Highway 87 crosses over I-90 – will also be that of a Diverging Diamond. HDR is also the engineering firm designing this project.

A Diverging Diamond Interchange is one in which the two directions of traffic cross over to briefly drive on the opposite side of the road from what is customary, offering many safety benefits. (See video of a diverging diamond interchange here: tinyurl.com/JohnsonLaneDDI)

The Lockwood Interchange project also includes the widening of I-90 to three lanes to the Johnson Lane Interchange.

Also, plans for the Lockwood Interchange include improving safer access at the intersection of Hwy. 87 and Coburn Road, just south of the Interchange. Because of its proximity to the interchange safety features are needed, said engineers. While other options are being explored, the preferred alternative that is emerging would be to convert the Coburn intersection into a three-quarter access. This would allow right turn and left turn lanes from Hwy. 87, onto Coburn Road, but a left turn from Coburn Road onto Hwy. 87 would not be allowed. Left turning traffic onto Hwy. 87 would be required to take a right onto Rosebud and then take a left onto Lockview Lane to its intersection with Hwy. 87, where it would be safer to make a left turn onto Hwy. 87.

Public comment regarding all plans for all projects is encouraged by MDT. This is especially true for the Lockwood Interchange for which plans are in the earliest stages – about 30 percent complete. To see an interactive map for the project areas go to  https:// experience.arcgis.com/ experience/ffc303851 f784e23ab 411f6da b6e70ca

(Another project – First Avenue and Exposition Drive — currently in the design stage will reconfigure and rebuild Highway 87 as it rounds the perimeter of Metra Park to Exposition Drive which leads to the Heights’ Main Street.)

The Johnson Lane Diverging Diamond Interchange is part of the Billings Bypass project that will connect Highway 312 in Billings Heights to Johnson Lane in Lockwood, including a new bridge across the Yellowstone River that is already under construction. The Billings Bypass project, in all of its six phases, is being designed and overseen by DOWL.

Work was completed last year on the first phase of the Bypass, which involved the widening and reconstruction of Five Mile Road in the Heights. Work continues on the new bridge and the Johnson Lane Interchange.

Granite Construction/ LHC will be the construction manager/general contractor to build the interchange with construction anticipated to begin in 2022. Currently MDT is meeting with property owners and stakeholders as permits and right-of-way is acquired.

Another phase of the Billings Bypass project is well underway – the construction of a new bridge across the Yellowstone River which will ultimately provide motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians a connection between Lockwood and the Billings Heights.

As construction of the Billings Bypass Yellowstone River bridge moves forward MDT is providing a live webcam for the public to view real-time construction progress  (the webcam is available at https:// www. mdt.mt.gov/ pubinvolve/ billingsbypass/). Construction of bridge piers from the temporary work bridge is continuing in anticipation of beam placement.

Construction is being completed by Wadsworth Brothers Construction and is planned to be predominantly complete by the end of 2021.

Bethany Blankley, The Center Square

Red states are leading economic growth in the U.S., a new report by the U. S. Commerce Department shows, with South Dakota, Texas and Utah reporting the highest growth.

The report is based on 2020 fourth quarter gross domestic product (GDP) data and February 2021 unemployment rates.

Real GDP increased in all 50 states and the District of Columbia in the fourth quarter of 2020. Real GDP for the U.S. as a whole increased at an annual rate of 4.3 percent. The percent change in real GDP in the fourth quarter ranged from 9.9 percent in South Dakota to 1.2 percent in the District of Columbia.

Montana had a GDP increase of 3.6 percent.

The top three states in quarter-over-quarter growth were South Dakota (9.9 percent), Texas (7.5 percent), and Utah (7.1 percent). All three have Republican trifecta governments, with Republicans controlling the governor’s offices and both chambers of state legislatures.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, pointing to the report, tweeted, “The Texas economy expanded at a rapid pace of 7.5 percent in the last quarter of 2020. That means more jobs & more prosperity for Texans. Only one state – and no large state – had better economic growth than Texas. The Texas economy is fire.”

Eight of the states in the top 10 are all Republican-led states. The two in the top 10 that are Democratic strongholds are Connecticut, reporting 7 percent growth, and Delaware, reporting 5.8 percent growth.

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds pointed to Iowa’s growth of 6.3 percent, tweeting Iowa is “The #1 state for opportunity,” with a “GDP growth faster than the national average,” and it “had kids back in school since August.”

On March 26, the New York Federal Reserve “GDP Nowcast” model, which estimates real-time economic growth, said that while the U.S. economy grew at 6.1 percent in the first quarter of 2021, it will only grow at 0.7 percent in the second quarter.

Fed analysts attribute the “negative surprises from personal consumption expenditures, manufacturers’ shipments of durable goods, and housing data” as contributing factors for the forecasted decrease. Their forecast for the entire year is roughly 6 percent growth or higher.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates were lower in February in 23 states and the District of Columbia, higher in four states, and stayed roughly the same in 23 states, with the national unemployment rate remaining at 6.2 percent.

States reporting the highest unemployment rates are Hawaii (9.2 percent) and California (9 percent). States with the lowest are South Dakota (2.9 percent) and Utah (3.0 percent).