Billings’ very own Wayne Nelson is among those recognized as the Small Business Administration’s business people of the year.

 Montana District Director, Brent Donnelly, has announced Montana’s 2023 Small Business Persons of the Year and other Montana Small Business award winners.

The award for Small Business Champion goes to Wayne Nelson, readily recognized by most Billings business people for his 25 years providing business expertise and support for entrepreneurs, as a leader with Stockman Bank. 

Neli and Dimitar Nikolov, owners of The Corral Burger and Lodge in Gardiner, have been named as the Small Business Persons of the year.

Shellie’s Country Café, Inc., Helena, owned by Shellie Mitchell and Aimee Myles, has been named  Woman Owned Small Business of the Year.

Willie’s Distillery, Inc. in Ennis was named Veteran Owned Small Business of the Year, recognizing Willie Blazer and his late wife, Robin, for their entrepreneurial efforts.

SBA Young Entrepreneurs of the Year are Asia Caluori and Dustin Anglen owners of Pearl Boba Tea Missoula, MT

Penta Machine Company, Bozeman, owned by Michelle and Matthew Hertel have been named  Small Business Exporter of the Year, and they also won the award as Rocky Mountain Region VIII Exporter of the Year

“This year’s Montana SBA award winners are not only a testament to the grit and resiliency of Montana small businesses,” said Donnelly, “but also an inspiration as they highlight the opportunities entrepreneurship affords to make tremendous impacts to our families and our Montana communities.”

Each year during National Small Business Week , stars of the business community at state, regional and national levels , are recognized.  “More than half of all Americans either own or work for a small business, and they create nearly 70 percent of net new jobs in the U.S.” said SBA Regional Administrator Aikta Marcoulier,  “I congratulate each of our Small Business Week award winners for their pursuit to create equality in the workplace, advance innovation, and increase America’s global competitiveness.”

National Small Business Week will be observed April 30 – May 6, 2023.  State Small Business Persons of the Year winners will be formally recognized on May 1 in Washington DC and all winners will be honored locally during the week of May 1. Details to be announced at a later date.

The event will celebrate small businesses, provide critical resources and recognize SBA partners for their support in providing startups and small business owners with counseling and advice, skills development, disaster preparedness and recovery, as well as access to capital, government contracting, and market opportunities to start, grow and build resilient businesses.

Wayne Nelson, Stockman Bank

As Small Business Champion, Nelson is being recognized for his very active role in community leadership with service and economic development organizations.  After 25 years with Stockman Bank, 15 of those years leading the Billings market as President, Nelson now serves as Senior Banking Executive.  Nelson has served on the Board of Directors for Big Sky Economic Development for several terms and has referred clients to many of the programs hosted by BSED including, SBA, VBOC, SBDC, the Rock 31 Entrepreneurship program and PTAC, where they received technical assistance and access to financing. 

The Corral Burger and Lodge, Gardiner

The Corral Burger and Lodge is the longest standing business in Gardiner, Montana, the only year-round entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  The business was established in 1960 and was previously known as Helen’s Burgers. “The little burger joint has always been famous for its big juicy burgers made from a variety of meats.”

Neli and Dimitar Nikolov took over ownership of the business in 2015 and grew its popularity by continuing Helen’s legacy. In 2017, USA Today voted The Corral as Best ELK Burger in Montana. The Nikolovs take pride in finding the best locally raised elk, buffalo and 100% grass-fed beef, fresh produce, and great ice cream.  When the pandemic interrupted the supply chain and increased prices, Neli and Dimitar pivoted and began growing their own vegetables to maintain their focus on using local products.

Operating a successful restaurant in a rural tourist town (pop. 833) presents unique challenges, especially when it comes to housing shortages and recruiting employees.  To tackle this challenge, the Nikolovs expanded to provide lodging for their guests and employees.  They were able to add six lodging units to an already existing house for employees and in June 2021, Corral Villas was built and opened its doors to guests for short-term rentals.   Located in the heart of Gardiner, just a building down from the restaurant, Corral Villas offers the ultimate Yellowstone getaway. Open year-round, it is the perfect headquarters  to launch a day of rafting, fly fishing, hiking, biking, hunting, cross-country skiing, or any other endeavor that calls your name while visiting and exploring America’s first National Park!

Over a three-year period during peak tourist season, the number of employees grew from 15 to 40.  However, the business experienced tragedy in June 2022 due to historic flooding that closed the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and stopped the flow of tourism through Gardiner.  Local businesses rely on tourism summer traffic for a bulk of their annual revenue, and budget to make it through the shoulder seasons and winter.  Businesses like The Corral Burger and Lodge were forced to reduce staffing and work hard to minimize expenses.  Fortunately, the most heavily damaged entrance to the park, located in Gardiner, re-opened four months later.  Business has resumed in Gardiner and Yellowstone, and visitors are once again able to continue enjoying the big juicy burgers and shakes they’ve come to know and love.

Shellie’s Country Café, Inc., Helena

Shellie Mitchell and Aimee Myles were both raised in the town in which they now run their business. In 2007, after over 30 years in the restaurant business, Shellie took a leap of faith, borrowing $800 from her son to open a small cafe. With several family members in tow, Shellie began the painstaking process of turning a true down-home start up into an ever growing operation. Her daughter, Aimee, began working in the restaurant at age 15, and after spending over half her life helping to grow Shellie’s Country Cafe, she became part owner. Their values revolve around creating a family atmosphere, being committed to their staff, and giving the community somewhere to gather with friends and family. Driving the motto “Nothing Fancy, Just Good Food!”, the Shellie’s Country Cafe family of dedicated members, have taken this small hometown vision and made it a staple of the community they continue to serve.

Willie’s Distillery, Inc., Ennis

Willie’s Distillery started in 2010 by Willie Blazer and his late wife Robin. Willie’s Distillery is a craft distillery located on the Madison River in Ennis, that specializes in products such as bourbon, vodka, blended whiskey, and cream liqueurs. Products are distributed to all 50 states, but the Rocky Mountain west region, primarily Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, is their most noteworthy market. What started with only two employees in 2010, has since grown to a team of 34 and is one of the most recognizable veteran-owned businesses in Montana. The distillery is one of the largest distilleries in Montana, is a destination and a gathering place for veterans, service members, and whiskey drinkers, and known as a place to see a friendly face, meet other service members and catch a good time in Montana.

Asia Caluori & Dustin Anglen – Pearl Boba Tea Missoula

Prior to attending the University of Montana, Asia Caluori taught English in Vietnam where she discovered her love for bubble tea. After college, Asia remained in Missoula working in the tech space, but always had a dream of bringing her love of boba to Missoula.  Dustin studied international business at UC Santa Barabara and became a technology instructor out of college. This job required international travel with long and frequent visits to East and South East Asia where Dustin frequently indulged in boba. After a backpacking trip in Yellowstone, he convinced Asia the pair would be able to pull off a boba farmer’s market stand in Missoula. After selling 500% more than targeted, the owners quickly recognized a need in the community, hired staff, and opened a temporary location in downtown Missoula. In October 2021, the duo opened their first permanent location in the University of Montana’s University Center. Eight months later, they opened their second full-time operation in downtown Missoula.  In 2022, they grew to 20 employees, served 15,500+ customers and sold 53,000+ drinks in that year alone.

Penta Machine Company, Bozeman

Michelle and Matthew Hertel moved to Washington state together after college where Michelle worked as a mechanical engineer for Boeing and Matt worked as a machinist for Electroimpact.  While they enjoyed living and working there, they knew they wanted to eventually return to Montana.  This desire inspired them to begin designing a CNC mill together that they hoped to eventually sell.  Over three years they worked evenings and weekends to develop their initial prototype before leaving their jobs and returning to Montana to launch Penta Machine Company.  It took them another year and a half to bring their product to market with a successful Kickstarter Campaign in 2015.  The company began focusing on exporting in 2019, and saw a 48% increase in revenues to over $3,000,000.  This has allowed them to continue developing new products in house while maintaining profitability.  Penta Machine Company now sells their products nationally as well as internationally in South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia.

Why is Yellowstone County not participating in the plan to develop passenger rail service through southern Montana? The question was posed to Yellowstone County Commissioners by Keith Lavacheck during a recent discussion meeting.

A group has organized and several counties have joined an effort to “resurrect the Hiawatha Passenger Line”. The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is urging a federal study of the feasibility of re-establishing the defunct Amtrak line that once carried passengers between Chicago and Seattle via Billings, Butte and Missoula. It was abandoned in 1979.

Lavachek asked the commissioners to be “forward looking,” and at least support the study to explore the feasibility and cost-benefit possibilities. “I think it is a good deal,” he said, “Shouldn’t we learn more about it“? The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority is hopeful that federal funding for a study will come from Congress’ infrastructure funding bill passed over a year ago. Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester worked to include language in the infrastructure bill that set aside $15 million for a nationwide study.

Actually, re-establishing passenger rail service is not just a focus in Montana. Federal government websites states that “over the next 15 years, Amtrak’s vision for expansion will connect up to 160 communities throughout the United States by building new or improved rail corridors in over 25 states.”

Besides nostalgia for a by-gone era, there is hope that a southern rail passenger service would be a boon to the economy by encouraging greater tourism. It is also pointed out that in Montana’s far-flung open spaces there is a need for public transportation services that a passenger rail service would meet.

Although asked several times over the years, Yellowstone County has refused to join other Montana counties in support of the vision. Commissioner John Ostlund told Lavachek that their refusal has to do with being fiscally responsible with tax dollars. When they first considered the idea 13 years ago, said Ostlund, the estimated cost was a billion dollars. Since then, he suspects the cost would be at least $2 billion. “Passenger rail service doesn’t make money,” said Ostlund.

Lavachek said that signing on as a supporter of investigating the possibilities wouldn’t mean Yellowstone County would be committed beyond the feasibility study. Ostlund seemed to think it might.

Ostlund also pointed out that there would be other negative impacts of adding a passenger line such as slowing down freight lines.

Commissioner Mark Morse said, “We have finite resources and a lot of places to spend it.”

Lavachek suggested in an email sent to Yellowstone County Commissioners and the Billings Mayor that “We should not assume that this is going to cost $2, 3 or 10 billions until we see the study.”

Ostlund pointed out the Amtrak route has never made a profit and is hugely subsidized by federal dollars, and Montana’s Northern route is among the worst. Montana’s Amtrak route, called the Empire Builder, passes through Havre and the Flathead between Seattle and Chicago.

Initial research in a feasibility study reports that restoration of the route across Montana and six other states would generate more than $270 million in economic benefits and carry an estimated 420,000 passengers each year.

Nationally, Amtrak carried 22.9 million passengers in 2022, concentrated primarily in Eastern states. Montana’s portion of the route carried 433,000 passengers in 2022.

During COVID, even though Montana’s Amtrak was provided $1 billion in additional federal subsidy, Amtrak rail service through the Hi-line was dropped to three days a week.

Despite much reporting on proposals regarding the resurrection of passenger rail service throughout the country, there is scant mention of how much rail service is subsidize in the US. Prior to COVID, information from the Department of Transportation states that Amtrak received appropriations of about $1.5 billion in 2017 and $1.9 billion in 2018 to subsidize “intercity passenger rail services,” which of course does not include the cost in Montana. Amtrak’s capital spending in 2017 was $1.6 billion and its operating expenses totaled $4.2 billion.

Another report analyzed in 2018 a savings to the federal government of $20 billion should it eliminate funding for Amtrak.

Ostlund’s concerns about shifting the cost to local governments may not be unfounded. The same report about savings, noted that Amtrak subsidies were first authorized in the 1970s, as a temporary measure. Subsidies “were intended to help Amtrak become self-supporting.” It went on to suggest that “…states or localities that highly value the subsidized rail or air services should provide the subsidies.”

The Montana Department of Transportation website reports that in 2008 Amtrak estimated the capital and up-front costs “…to exceed $1 billion, annual operating cost would exceed $74 million, resulting in a $31 million annual operating loss.”

By Evelyn Pyburn

A Utah-based company has discovered rare earth minerals in southwestern Montana so vast, as to “far exceed any other domestic rare earth resource.”

US Critical Materials Corp reports that the find in Ravalli County, near Darby, has “the highest reported total rare-earth oxide grades of any rare earth deposit in the United States.”  US Critical Materials Corp is a privately held company that focuses on rare-earth exploration and development.

Rare earth minerals have become essential to almost all future technology in almost every segment of modern business, industry and military.  The minerals are not only vital to the future, but the need to be able to source them in the US is just as critical. Despite the extensive need for them, the US depends upon China to provide almost 90 percent of the rare earth minerals it needs – a perilous situation for the military, which requires rare earths metals in the production of most of its weapons and equipment.

Ed Cowle and Harvey Kaye, both of whom are directors of US Critical Materials Corp, spoke to the Big Sky Business Journal about the status of the project and its importance. The USGS has confirmed that they will be mapping, sampling, and exploring the property this summer and will conduct fly overs as part of the earth MRI program.

According to Cowle and Kaye, there is in fact much collaboration going on with numerous entities, including the U.S. Geological Survey, the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology, and the Idaho Geologic Survey. They are assisting US Critical Minerals in a comprehensive investigation of the Sheep Creek mineralogy, geochronology, and trace element geochemistry. The U.S. Government agencies are also undertaking detailed mapping of the Sheep Creek district and conducting stream sediment surveys.

The deposits seem to bear thirteen of the most essential critical minerals that are in demand for making such things as rechargeable batteries, electric vehicles, wind turbines, mobile phones, permanent magnets, electric motors, lasers, computer chips, semiconductors and microchips.

And, most remarkable, the underground data shows a low thorium level, which is quite rare. Thorium is usually a “waste” that must be removed during the mining process. Not having it present means the company will not have to go through the permitting process required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and it will make “extraction and processing easier, faster, and less damaging to the environment.”

“We have confirmed that Sheep Creek is the highest-grade rare-earth deposit in the United States, with a multibillion-dollar resource

value. Over the course of my career

independently evaluating rare earth properties within the US, I have never encountered a property with the grades being generated by Sheep Creek “ stated Jim Hedrick, US Critical Materials President, and former rare-earth Commodity Specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Kaye said Sheep Creek “is quite superior to any other discovered in the US,” And, further given the quality and the economics of the discovery and its ultimate profitability, “It will be more environmentally friendly because you don’t have to dig up huge quantities of rock to make the economics work.”

The site was that of a previous mining project 30 or 40 years ago, but had never been explored for rare earth minerals. The explorers were looking for niobium.  Previously, they drilled horizontal adits  (tunnels) into “the side of the mountain about 400 feet long.” Since US Critical Materials, Corp. held the mining rights at Sheep Creek on what is mostly land administered by the US Forest Service, in October 2022, they opened up the tunnels and took a geologist into them.

What they saw in terms of rare earth metals “was actually jaw dropping,” said Kaye. We found rare earth mineralization 125 feet below the surface in those tunnels. The underground rare earths came out with very high percentages. This gave us a “window” into the deposit.

The Sheep Creek site could very well be “the most valuable rare earth property ever discovered,” exclaimed Kaye. On the website,, President Hedrick , is quoted as saying that as a pre-resource-stage deposit the inferred value of the discovery  is a “conservative” $43 billion.

The company has only explored 35% of its property. Within the 800 acres explored, there are 50 surface carbonatites, which is quite rare. Kaye explained that because of the number of carbonatites they strongly believe the dikes originate from a deeper, larger source – sort of like “the mother lode”.

Sheep Creek spans 223 lode claims representing approximately 4,500 acres of total land package. Historical grab and chip sampling of carbonatites indicate the potential for high-grade mineralization with up to 18.0% total rare earth elements, including 2.4% (23,810ppm) combined neodymium and praseodymium, plus credits in niobium and other strategic metals.

“Sheep Creek samples collected so far are higher grade than most global rare earth deposits, which tend to run from 0.1% to 4% TREO.”

Rare earth samples have been taken from 125 feet underground, according to a press release, and they confirm the presence of over 10% (100,000 ppm) of total rare earth oxides, (TREO) including high levels of neodymium and praseodymium. The results included previously mentioned channel samples from two underground tunnels that were unsealed in October 2022 and sampled in November 2022. These tunnels were dug up to 400 feet horizontally and are 125 feet below the surface.

There remains considerable uncertainty as to how soon US Critical Materials Corp can begin mining – it won’t be for a matter of years – maybe as many as ten years, even though the company has high hopes of accelerating that time line. This year the company will be doing more research and exploration, sampling and mapping, said Cowle. Only about 35 percent of the Sheep Creek area has been examined.

The company will hopefully do some drilling this summer in attempt to find out if the underground drilling samples match the surface samples. The drilling will only occur if US Critical Materials is approved to drill.

US Critical Materials does not do mining and will engage a company to do it. They expect to process the ore in Darby, which Kaye said has all the infrastructure that will be needed.  The cost of developing the project to the mining stage will require at least $100 million.

Finding the investors to continue exploration and mining is part of the challenge before them, but Cowle and Kaye say there is a great deal of interest among potential investors.

The development will be significant for Darby, which has a population of 783, as it will be for the state of Montana. “We believe it will be extremely positive for the economy of the entire area,” said Kaye, “It will provide  high paying, quality jobs.” In addition, Kaye said, “We want everyone to know we have the same concerns as they do — how to do it with the latest technology and best environmental protections.“

 While there are three or four other areas in the US where it’s been announced that rare earth minerals have been found in great enough quantity to be mined profitably, there is only one operational mine in the US, MP Materials in Mountain Pass, California, and its ore is processed in China.

(It is interesting to note that rare earth minerals are not all that rare—what is rare is to find them in deposits large enough to be economically mined.)

by Evelyn Pyburn

As someone coming from farm life, I fully know the urgency farmers face during harvest or planting season. Even 15 minutes of “daylight” is vital. Waiting days for some techy to arrive to fix a broken-down piece of equipment is simply not an option. Waiting even two or three days could mean crop failure to a degree that they might as well declare bankruptcy, right then and there. There is no negotiating with Mother Nature.

A break-down in the field was always an opportunity for my brothers or Dad to discover another amazing invention, which often involved the great versatility of bailing wire.

Then there was the time that the witchamajig  that tied one of the knots on bales of hay quit working  and I was sat in place to tie each knot as the bale inched out of the baler – it didn’t even take Dad fifteen minutes to come up with that solution! Be assured that tying hundreds of knots does pose some risk for  painful fingers. But, hey! It worked.

Well, farm machines don’t use witchamajigs any more – like cars they are designed with tons of computerized programs and technology that are as sophisticated as anything that flies airplanes or rocket ships. Baling wire just doesn’t work – but neither does sending out a repairman from Bozeman by mid-afternoon  — in all likelihood they aren’t available. Fixing things that go wrong with the today’s technology takes great expertise and knowledge – -and scheduling, which can very well stretch into two or three days – plenty of time for two or three thundershowers that halt field work until windrows dry or create mud holes that bogs down equipment.

With the new age technology, however, the manufactures of the computerized equipment do not want to share their trade secrets, which telling farmers how to fix it would likely do — an understandable dilemma. One could have seen this dilemma coming a mile away, when they first started announcing what the new age farm equipment was going to be like. Maybe technicians and company CEO’s – -generations off the farm – didn’t understand the importance of timely maintenance and repairs, but they surely do now as farmers – their customers – are demanding speedy repairs in the field.

The big question is: what does the state legislature have to do with it? 

This is a market problem and it should be ironed out between the manufacturing companies and their customers. If the companies fail to meet what their customers need and want they will lose out to competitors who will. Or, at the very least used farm equipment, without all the new technology will escalate in value as it is sought out by farmers who want to make sure they can get their crops planted and their harvest in, even if it is with old technology.

That is what happens in a free market.

Anything forthcoming from politicians tinkering with the situation will only cause other problems. Don’t know what it will be, but that it will be there is no doubt.

 This is a really big issue that will face many people in the market place as more and more technology is developed. It needs to be corrected the right way, right now…. and it’s unlikely politicians have the answer. 

This is actually just one market problem with which Montana legislators are wrangling –  problems that the market should be allowed to sort out – -unless of course it is a problem that previous political meddling has created. Then they need to untangle that past interference and then get out of the way. That’s essentially what all the bills removing red tape which the Governor has pushed forward is all about — undoing the tangled messes that were created by meddling with market issues. Again, it’s too bad more people don’t have confidence in markets. Markets work!

Maybe it’s because of the television show “Yellowstone,” but for whatever reason promoters of the air show in Billings that will feature the Blue Angels are discovering that Montana is really “hot.”

Everyone wants to come, says co-chair of the Yellowstone International Airshow board, Mathew McDonnell. Every performer invited to participate in the air show — and that includes some very top-notch entertainment — has said “yes.” So besides the Blue Angels, the many other acts that will be performing are the very best of the best.

Even the Blue Angels report that of the personal guests they are inviting, everyone is accepting – they all want to visit Montana.

The organizers are expecting 12,500 people per day for the two-day event, which will unfold on August 12 and 13 at the Billings Logan International Airport. Sponsors and volunteers will be putting on one of the biggest shows Billings has ever seen.

Even though Billings is considered a small town, it’s not going to be a small- town airshow, said McDonnell. The Blue Angels are committed to bringing the show that’s produced for big towns – those with populations of 500,000 or more.

There will be other military performers, about which specific information is classified, but they will include some of the fifth generation fighter jets, “that you don’t usually get,” said McDonnell. He adds that the shows line-up has even impressed “Thumper” – Kendall Switzer — a retired Brigadier General who is a past Blue Angel and has been part of many air shows. Switzer now lives in Bozeman and is helping in planning this airshow.

Tickets for the show are already on sale and the VIP tickets for Saturday are already sold out. So far they have sold about a fifth of the general admission tickets they expect to sell.

Tickets are $45 for general admission and $10 for children 10 and under. Buy four or more tickets and get free parking. VIP tickets for Sunday are still available at $125, which include private tent, private viewing area, parking, VIP pass, private food and beverage stations and private porta potty.

They have 50 chalet tents that are being sold as suites that accommodate 15 people per suite. At $15,000 each, about half are already sold, said McDonnell.  More information is available on the web site,

Also on the website are sites to submit requests to be a vendor or to operate a food truck, as well as to volunteer. A number of food trucks are already committed as are a number of vendors who will sell souvenirs or other air show related items. Others with tables and displays are military recruiters and non-profit organizations.

McDonnell offers one piece of advice to those attending the air show – “Come Early!”

McDonnell explained that there are many things to do and see before the planes fly.

There will be plenty of water and opportunity for shade, he advised, as well as numerous food trucks and beer booths. Patrons may bring in chairs and blankets, but umbrellas and coolers will not be allowed.

Parking in the peripheral or secondary areas will also not be allowed because of protocols for safety required by the Blue Angels.

Thursday and Friday will be hectic days of preparation and flying practice, which of course are not open to the public, but a special event will be held on Friday for disabled veterans, who are urged to register on the website so they can be notified and invited.

The airshow will also include a salute to 75 years of women in the military.

Volunteers have emerged from every corner of Billings, and even from other parts of the state. Each of the 25 or so board members have taken on a duty from managing the food and beverage vendors to lining up the motels and hotels, to planning the airport layout and parking for the event. The show is paying only two individuals— a coordinator from Salt Lake City and an “air boss” – everyone else are volunteers. McDonnell said that the Salt Lake City coordinator proclaimed that “this is the best board I have ever seen.”

Ticket sales and sponsors help to fund the $1 million or so that it takes to put on an air show.  The project is an expensive one, as they have to rent tents, porta potties, sound systems, fences, etc. They have to pay for the entertainment acts and for fuel, which is quite expensive, said McDonnell, who adds that they have gone all- out for lots of “flames and explosions”, which while adding to the cost, will make the show more exciting.

 Co-chairs of the airshow board, Matthew McDonnell and Jake Penwell, have been working on putting the airshow together for more than two years. It all started over breakfast at PAYS café, where the two old friends reminisced about their youth growing up in Billings and what they loved and appreciated about their hometown.  As Jake and Matt reminisced they talked about wanting to be able to “give back” to the community they loved, then suddenly they declared “why not!?” Why not try to bring the airshow back.

Penwell shared how impactful the former airshows in Billings had been for him. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, explaining that he had long been entertaining ideas of joining the military, but after seeing the airshow he enlisted in the Navy. Today, Penwell’s son has become the third generation of Penwells to serve in the Navy.

To inspire, motivate and educate young people about the military and their country is the purpose of the Blue Angels airshows.

The Blue Angels are a flight demonstration squadron of the United States Navy who fly Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. Over the years they have performed for more than 500 million people. The squadron’s logistics support aircraft is the C-130J Super Hercules.

Founded in 1946 by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Blue Angel’s performances assist in recruiting and retention goals for the military services, enhance esprit de corps among uniformed men and women, and inspire and educate young people. The team is stationed at Forrest Sherman Field, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, during the air show season. The squadron spends January through March training at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California.

An interior remodel of The Squire Lounge & Casino, on Broadwater Avenue has been completed and is introducing a new food concept – – Topless Tacos.

A complete make-over of the lounge area features a vintage neon sign that was part of Steve Henry’s collection of vintage signs. Henry offered Squire owners, Reid and Shawna Pyburn, the sign for their use in remodeling. They quickly seized the opportunity and its bright light now illuminates the bar area and sets the ambiance for the entire lounge, which has been redesigned offering plush seating, stage area, and the new food concept, Topless Tacos.

Topless Tacos will be served throughout the day at the Squire, from opening with breakfast tacos through to closing with a choice of beef or chicken dishes – all of which are served without embellishment and the patron may add their favorite toppings from an array of choices in a buffet of popular garnishes.

Also the Squire’s limited menu includes nachos and taco salad which guests may also top with their favorite garnishes.

According to the Pyburns, the Squire’s traditional and popular Thursday Steak night will resume on April 20 when the patio opens. Steak Night was instituted by former owners Paul “Pauly” DeVerniero and Jeff Flatness who bought the business in 2011 from Larry McGrill.

Reid and Shawna Pyburn, who also own the High Horse Saloon & Eatery, purchased The Squire Lounge & Casino, almost a year ago.

The Squire Lounge and Casino is one of Billings’ legacy businesses. It had its roots in downtown Billings near 3320 1st Avenue North, long before 1973, (perhaps about 1960) owned by Frank Lambrecht. His sons, Jack and Al, relocated the business with a new building at 1525 Broadwater. DeVeniero said he was a bartender at The Squire from 1976 to 1981. Larry McGrill purchased the business from the Lambrechts in 1990.

Exactly when the Squire was started as a business has been lost to antiquity. It is estimated to be about 70-plus years old.

Yellowstone County is Montana’s largest economic hub, made so in large part because it serves a four-state regional area. Partly because its economy is based upon success of other states in the region, which have had their own economic struggles, Yellowstone County’s economy has had a “subpar performance for the latter half of the previous decade,” explains economist Pat Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

He referenced areas like the Bakken in North Dakota, whose gas and oil industry has a significant impact on Yellowstone County. Despite that, the county has had some steady improvement over the past two years because of improvement in some of its core industries, which includes “strong visitor spending.”

While Yellowstone County and Billings had strong growth in 2022 at 3.1 percent, Barkey said he is pessimistic about 2023 for the county – projecting a growth of less than zero at – 1.1 percent.

The county’s health care industry, has had “sluggish” growth, which has been the industry’s experience across the state.

Banking and finance, retail, wholesale and transportation-related businesses in Yellowstone County have been enjoying growth.

It was noted that, unlike other areas of the state, much of Yellowstone County’s population growth has been from other counties in the state.

Looking beyond 2023, the BBER forecast was quite a bit better with 2024 projected at 2.4 percent, and 2025 at 3.1 percent and 2026 at 2.0 percent.

Yellowstone County’s most prominent industry (wages as a share relative to US average) is Mining, followed by Wholesale Trade and Health Care, followed by Transportation and Construction.

Defying the law of supply and demand, the number of housing starts over the past two years has slipped, while median sales prices have increased. Housing has barely been able to keep on a par with the county’s population growth which has ranged from 11 percent to 14 percent over the past couple of years. In 1980 housing growth was 46.6 percent in the county while population growth was 23.7 percent.

Recovery in employment over pre-pandemic levels has been strong, with Accommodations and Food having seen phenomenal growth. Growth has also been strong in Construction, Transportation and Professional/ technical fields.

Airport passenger enplanements at Billings Logan International Field have not recovered from declines over the past three years from a peak in 2019.

The situation for other highly-populated areas of the state is varied.


Gallatin County has the state’s fastest growing economy, according to the BBER, noting that that growth is spreading across the county from Bozeman to impact Belgrade, Manhattan and Three Forks. Tourism has had a strong impact on the county’s economy, in more ways than one. While many of the businesses that serve the tourism industry have surged, many have been forced to limit their hours or expansion because of workforce issues. Not only is it difficult to find workers but the escalating cost of housing in Gallatin County makes it difficult for workers to be able to afford to live there.

Nevertheless, visitor spending is expected to remain strong in Gallatin County, which along with strong tech growth and its attraction for out-of-staters to relocate there, will continue to spur strong growth into coming years. While Gallatin County is attracting out-of-state migration, others are leaving the county to relocate in other Montana counties.


Experiencing the second fastest growth in Montana is Flathead County, which in 2021 was almost as strong as Gallatin County. Driving the economy is visitor spending  and construction. The BBER forecasted 2023 growth at 1.9 percent in non-farm earnings. Housing prices cooled in Flathead County in 2022, and wages surged by 20 percent. Its basic industries are non-resident travel, manufacturing, health care and government.

Flathead County is projected to experience 1.9 percent growth in 2023.


Visitor spending was also important to strong growth for Missoula County, which has had “noticeable acceleration” in its economic growth over the past two years. Visitor spending has spurred the expansion of the motel and restaurant business segments in Missoula. The county also has growth in tech industries and in health care.

While not quite as robust as in Flathead and Gallatin Counties, construction has been strong in Missoula, where 2023 growth has been projected at 1.5 percent.


After three years of negative growth, Silver Bow County experienced positive growth of 5.5 percent in 2021. In 2022 growth was 0.6 percent. Such volatility for the county is not unknown, said economist Pat Barkey, because of its exposure to world commodity prices. Mining is the county’s most predominant industry. Like so much of the rest of the state, the county benefited from non-resident spending.

Positive growth is not projected to continue into 2023, according to Barkey, who projects negative growth of -0.7 percent.


Cascade County has “upshifted” into faster growth, according to the BBER. In 2021 its growth was 3.3 percent—the fastest growth since 2006. Its growth has been spurred by new building construction in both residential and commercial projects. A new medical school is one example. Great Falls is a trade center for the agricultural “Golden Triangle” area.

Government and federal military are Cascade County’s biggest industries because of the presence of the military base. Health care follows as the next important business segment.

While the growth in 2022 was 2.1 percent for Cascade County, projected growth for 2023 drops to 0.3 percent.


Lewis & Clark County has seen unprecedented growth in federal transfer payments related to federal transfer payments for pandemic stimulus programs. As those programs wound down, the county’s growth decelerated in 2021 but still came in at 2.7 percent in 2022.

This county too benefited by visitor spending and had an uptick in retail trade. Government and state government are at the top of the most prominent industries in the county. The county is projected to experience 0.5 percent growth in 2023.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Billings representative, Katie Zolnikov has introduced House Bill 337, which would prohibit local governments from requiring minimum residential lot sizes. Zolnikov’s aim is to open the door to the development of more affordable housing.

Such legislation would be unnecessary if private property rights were adhered to by a power-crazed bureaucracy.

The fact is about half the legislation we see would be unnecessary if private property rights were adhered to by both governments and citizens. If only “leaders” would trust to the market when it comes to determining what consumers or homeowners want!

The decline in respect for private property is an ominous trend, since liberty depends upon individuals being able to own and use property. Government in the US was intended to own only a scant necessity of property as needed to facilitate what it was supposed to do, and infringing upon private property required compensation.

Property owners should be compensated because the USE of property is its value. When you purchase property you are really purchasing the right to determine how to use it. The more you can do with a parcel, the greater its demand and the greater its value. When you rent it the renter purchases a portion of the right to use it in a specific way for a specific time. When city hall, the county, state or federal government usurp part of your ability to use it, there is a takings (theft) and the owner should be compensated for the loss.

Of course, such a system would greatly diminish the eagerness of bureaucrats to dictate how private individuals may use their property.

Years ago as planners and czars were ratcheting up their power over how people could build homes, ostensibly for “health and safety”, there were those who warned that this day would come – the  day, when the market would not function and there would not be enough housing, and what there would be would be inordinately expensive.

Back then – in the ‘70s —  I was told that they needed  to control the size of residential lots because they had done studies on rats and determined that when rats lived in crowded conditions, rats died. They didn’t want us all dying like rats, they said. Really! this is true! It was what a somber, sober and ostensibly wise bureaucrat told me.

Of course that was the policy that created urban sprawl, which today the autocrats hate and are dedicated to eradicating with the implementation of a different set of coercive regulations telling people what to do with their property. The point is, of course, that while they assert that they have all the answers, even their own history says they do not.

There is nothing wrong within our economy regarding housing that a free market wouldn’t take care of so rapidly that market glitches would be corrected before we even noticed them. That the housing market is so crippled screams to the high heavens that housing is not functioning in a free market. Any time there are market distortions, look closely, it is always because of government controls.

Believe it or not there was a time when people built homes with no government oversight – many of those homes are the beautiful homes in historic districts that everyone now wants to save and  which usually hold premium prices even though they are a century old. How is that possible?

As far as guaranteeing the integrity of a building?  On my Grandfather’s ranch when they went to demolish the house that was built during the Homestead era, it proved to be so soundly and tightly built with hand hewn logs – with no guidance from “experts” —  that when they tried to remove it they could not pull it down with the farm tractors. They had to burn it down. Again, how is that possible without building codes and inspectors?

A property owner should be able to build whatever kind of house they want on property they own, so long as it poses no physical danger or damage to others. If it’s a poorly built house it will have no value to potential future buyers and banks won’t accept it as collateral. People have every incentive to build quality structures and the market will deal quite ruthlessly with those who don’t.

The color or size of a house isn’t anyone’s business but the property owner’s. It shouldn’t matter what space they have in front of the house or whether the garage is in front or back. The property owner should be able to place a basketball hoop where they want or put up whatever kind of fence they want. This is how property rights work.

If a prospective homeowner wants protection against what neighbors might do, they buy property in a development that has covenants restricting use and construction – which would be something they CHOOSE to accept.

While much attention is being given to lot sizes and prohibitions against multi-family units, there are also hundreds of regulations dictating how people should build, dictates that impose extraordinary costs while eliminating no risks. Some years ago, there was a report that concluded that unnecessary regulations imposed $40,000 on a typical new house in Montana. And – they said Montana was one of the worst states for imposing costly and overly restrictive regulations.

Some cities restrict colors one can paint a house, whether gardens are permissible, or how high the fence can be. Good grief, we had planners who were consternated about how wide a garage door should be or whether a property owner could build an apartment over their garage. In Billings, in order to appease someone else’s sense of esthetics, ordinances force property owners to place garages in the alley. What business is it of theirs, especially when you know the last thing you are going to see after a two-foot snowstorm is a city snow plow?

Regulations on property use have much broader impacts than just cost. Decades ago it was  common for people – especially the elderly – to rent out a room in their home – quite often to students – which was not only more affordable but helped older home owners to afford to stay in their homes. It also provided social interaction for older people, who otherwise might live very solitary lives, and it created a degree of security for both the landlords and tenants. This, too, was made illegal as municipalities policed the use of private property. But again, the “experts” in some communities have changed their views and are allowing “mother – in-law” apartments – not so much because of broader social and economic benefits but because it addresses their earlier mistakes in creating urban sprawl.

However, current policies still continue to create urban sprawl, as was revealed during community discussions last year by builders who said they don’t want to build within the city and many people don’t want to live within the city, because of violations of private property rights.  They “sprawl” into the country side.

One could go on and on explaining the ridiculousness of housing regulations and  the real things that happen, which not only impose costs on homebuilders but cripple housing availability.  Just strike up a conversation with a builder and they will readily tell you. If you listen to them you will be doing more than most municipal leaders.

Bear in mind the builders, engineers and architects tend to keep mum about building conflicts and ineffectual regulations, because as one architect pointed out to me some years ago, the building department and city hall control most aspects of their professions and if they want to stay in business they better keep their mouths shut and heads down.

So while House Bill 337 is certainly welcome, our right to own and use property already covers the violations it addresses, and while the bill may be of some help, housing will remain unaffordable and increasingly limited, until the housing market becomes free, and property owners can determine for themselves what they want. What we really need is the reinstitution of private property rights.

The first 80 students will begin “active learning” in July at Billings’ newly completed Rocky Vista University Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine at the intersection of Monad and Shiloh.  Construction began on the 138,000 square foot facility— Montana’s first medical college— in October of 2021. The college is unique in that there are no lecture halls; students learn through hands-on training and hyper-realistic simulations with state-of-the-art technology. Training uses aids such as lifelike mannequins that can breathe and be administered IVs, or virtual reality goggles that can take students into the body, the heart, or into the bloodstreams. David Park, the Vice-President and the Founding Dean, reports that the privately-funded college has already had a significant economic impact on the Billings community and will continue to have a $78.6 million impact, as well as an additional $67 million impact as it continues to fully expand over the next 4 years. The college provides 350 jobs, and adds more than $1.2 million in taxes to the region.

 The college offers a program called the Rural Medicine Track, where our students will be specifically trained on how to deliver healthcare in rural settings, and which will hopefully be able to provide additional services and support for rural communities. Well aware of the housing shortage, Rocky Vista is partnering with Stock Development to build 720 apartments next to the college.36 apartments have already been built. Rocky Vista also has medical colleges at Parker, Colorado and in Ivins, Utah

By Evelyn Pyburn

Having goals has long been understood as essential to achieve great things.

There’s no doubt that goals work! It hardly matters what the goal is or even if it is explicitly identified. That is why almost every organization establishes a mission statement.

One has to wonder, then, about the lure of investing in companies who loudly proclaim making money is not their primary goal.

Investing in ESG – greatly regaled by the media and pushed by government edicts – has become the politically correct thing to do. That in itself should present all kinds of warning flags – the very meaning of “politically correct” is essentially that of unthinking lemmings racing to the cliff’s edge.

So as people look at the businesses in which they want to invest, one has to wonder why they are so eager to invest in a business, that has declared to the world, its goal is not to make money, but to be obedient to government, surrender to environmental causes and to give what they have to others.  (ESG stands for Environment, Society and Government) Some wholly eschew the idea of making a profit as really being the evil that generations of school children have been taught.

If not making a profit is a company’s goal, be assured they won’t. And, neither will their investors. Ask any business owner— not making a profit is easy!

And yet it is, to be socially responsible, to accommodate for environmental issues, and most especially to abide by government edicts, requires that a business makes profits and lots of them.

With that being the case, what is the ESG crowd thinking? Unless it is nothing more than virtue signaling, one must assume that they are among the group that believe that business – especially “big business” – is inherently evil. Given the history of many businesses – most especially when partnered with the coercive powers of government – one can understand their concerns, because many companies are participating every day in corrupt and very evil things. All you have to do is listen to or read the daily news. But have you ever noticed that, most often, their corruption is in some way enabled by government – through laws that protect them from market forces, or suspend them from having to answer for criminal activity, or other policies of favoritism which sometimes include direct handouts funded by taxpayers?

It’s why one rarely sees “big business” espousing the beauty of Capitalism, which is nothing more than free markets – willing buyers and sellers voluntarily exchanging values with one another. The fact is there is a huge sector of the business world who hate free markets and fear them – – they survive because of their unholy alliances with politicians.

We don’t hear so much about the sound, ethical and, usually, politically unconnected businesses that function every day in our communities, working very hard to make a profit which in doing, they achieve, as a matter of course,  all the things that the ESG crowd say they want. Without businesses thriving in a community there is no community, and absolutely none of the ESG goals have a chance of being attained. That’s the way it has always been and how it will always be, because the reality is, business is where wealth is generated.

You cannot help the poor without the wealth generated in the business world. All social and civic efforts in any community come from businesses or the contributions of money and volunteer time of the people who work for them. 

Usually taking the actions required to protect the environment are costly and cannot be pursued without the wealth generated by businesses, which is one reason why the cleanest and most environmentally sensitive countries in the world are the wealthiest. People worried about where their next meal is coming from do not have the wherewithal to clean a polluted stream, and in fact their poverty is usually a contributing factor to the pollution. They most desperately need free markets – businesses making profits.

And, surely everyone understands that government generates absolutely ZERO wealth. Government has nothing and can accomplish nothing without the wealth it expropriates from the private sector – from its citizens and from businesses that make a profit in free markets.

Undoubtedly well-meaning people are making it a point to invest in ESG companies, believing that they will improve their communities and advance society, which are very strong American values. Of course, investors might be willing to accept less returns in exchange for better ESG performance, but according to sources like Harvard Business —  ESG companies don’t seem to deliver any better, and investments in ESG-touting companies are not doing well. While the ESG companies are undoubtedly achieving their non-profit goals, they are better in terms of complying with government rules, operating environmentally friendly, or contributing more to the needy.

It’s been found that the companies in the ESG portfolios had worse compliance records for both labor and environmental rules. Might that be because they lack the “profits” needed to comply? Government regulations on business have always been onerous, requiring greater investments – and companies need profits to pay employees more.

One reason for this, as pondered by the financial experts, is that perhaps companies not doing so well in the market, loudly proclaim an ESG status as a ploy to attract investors, who would otherwise be leery, just looking at their profit and loss statements.

So what are ESG proponents thinking? One has to conclude that either they are not, or their goal is not the success of business – of our economy – but instead they are seeking the destruction of the one thing that makes all others possible.