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While comparing Billings with other Montana communities is a common endeavor and certainly an annual one with the Economic Outlook seminar, Big Sky Economic Development (EDA) conducts another study that compares the Magic City to the economic performance of other cities in the region.

Called the “Economic Pulse,” EDA Director Steve Arveschoug reviewed the outcome of the study for 2018 during the Economic Outlook seminar in Billings. Billings in general hovers in the middle of the pack in most comparisons but there are a number of ups and downs in a wide range of categories.
The Economic Pulse compares Billings to similar –sized communities within a 500 mile radius, to gain a perspective about Billings’ competitiveness, as well as to identify opportunities and challenges.
The cities identified for comparison are Bismarck, Boise, Bozeman, Casper, Cheyenne, Fort Collins, Great Falls, Missoula, and Rapid City. With a population of 169,736, Billings is the largest of all the communities except for Boise (690,214) and Fort Collins (339,993). All of the cities have colleges or universities.
With a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of $10.2 billion, Billings remains the third largest economy of all the communities. The Billings GDP is double that of Missoula ($5.31 billion), which is very close in the size of its population. The Pulse concludes, “This speaks to the size of the Billings economy as well as the value of what is produced in our community.” (Bozeman was not included in this comparison due to a lack of data.)
Only the two communities that are substantially larger in population had larger GDPs.
In measuring personal income, however, Billings lagged the pack in 2017. Personal income helps to gauge the economic health of a community. Total personal income for Billings residents was $8 billion in 2017, or about 1.5 percent  (about one percent less than the forecasted 2.5 percent). For Casper it was -5 percent; for Cheyenne 1.2 percent; Bismarck 1.2 percent; Bozeman, 5.6 percent; Missoula, 4 percent; Fort Collins, 4 percent; Boise, 3.9 percent; Great Falls, 2.4 percent.
Data regarding the percent of change in GDP (Gross Domestic Product) indicates that Billings may have to diversify the products and services it produces, said Arveschoug. Adjusted data shows that Billings’ GDP grew 1.4 percent, but unadjusted data show it contracted 1 percent. The numbers are adjusted to reflect fluctuations in the value of products. At 1.4 percent Billings is in the center of the pack, which is led by GDP growth of about 4 percent for Boise and Fort Collins, while Cheyenne, Bismarck and Casper experienced negative GDP growth ranging from about 1 percent to almost 12 percent.
The population of Billings has grown 13 percent over the past ten years, a rate that outpaces the state average and the national average. But a number of peer communities are growing even faster. Not surprisingly, over the past ten years Bismarck’s population skyrocketed by almost 28 percent. Rapid City, Fort Collins, Boise, and Bozeman have grown well over 15 percent, while Cheyenne and Casper’s growth has been on a par with Billings. Missoula has grown at 10 percent and Great Falls has actually declined slightly.
In order to remain competitive, said the study, “…we need to increase our population growth in the young workforce demographic.”
Communities that do a good job of drawing younger aged people are those with large higher education presence. Boise and Fort Collins lead the way in that challenge, followed by Missoula, Bozeman and Rapid City. Only Casper draws fewer young people than Billings.
Billings is steadily improving in the level of education attainment. Only big college towns like Bozeman, Missoula and Fort Collins have a greater percentage of their population holding Bachelor degrees or higher. But even at that, Billings is on a par (well over 60 percent) with the college cities, in the number of people who have some college or associate degrees, as well as higher levels of education. Less than eight percent of Billings’ population have less than a high school education.
But, Billings also has one of the oldest working communities, compared to the other cities in the region. Billings has the second largest group that is 55 years or older, comprising 25 percent of its workforce. Only Rapid City has a larger older group. Communities that have smaller representation include Bozeman (19%), Missoula (19.4%), Boise (20%), and Fort Collins (21%).
The Billings unemployment rate, at 3.5 percent, remains lower than the nation by half a percentage and correlates well with its peer communities. Through 2017, Billings was consistently the second lowest unemployment rate of the Montana communities studied, with only Bozeman experiencing a lower rate. Other rates were Bozeman 2.9; Missoula 3.7; and Great Falls 3.9.
In terms of median household income, Billings at $58,037 remains in the middle of the pack, but in 2017 it surpassed the US. Cheyenne grew nearly 16 percent, with Fort Collins and Billings growing around 10 percent, and with Bozeman close behind at 9.2 percent.
Cost of living in Billings is 3 percent more than the US average but falls within the middle of the peer communities. It is very comparable with Boise. Cheyenne stands out as having the highest income with the second lowest cost of living. Bozeman has the highest cost of living figure in Montana, followed by Missoula; Great Falls is the lowest.
With an average monthly cost of $1,229, Billings is in the middle of the pack when it comes to housing affordability. It aligns closely with Missoula, with Bozeman being second to the highest, next to Fort Collins. Great Falls is the lowest.
The number of establishments in Billings grew about 1.46 percent. The growth rate slipped slightly from 2016 from 1.7 percent. Its growth rate is exceeded by Bismarck, Bozeman, Casper. Great Falls was the lowest in the state and Boise had negative growth.