The do-it-yourself binge that emerged during COVID isn’t expected to continue in 2021. But the trend contributed to the demand for wood products and pushed up prices in 2020, according to Todd Morgan, director of the Forest Industry Research Program, of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Morgan’s forecast for the industry in 2021 was a generally positive one.

At the same time in 2020 that consumers were buying more for fixing up and remodeling, to while away the stay-at-home mandates, wood products supplies were reduced even more by production slowdowns and curtailments. Lumber shipments from Canada declined due to limited timber supply and reduced milling capacity.  The result was “historic price hikes in lumber and panel markets responded, reported Morgan. “The Random Lengths framing lumber composite price index increased nearly 150 percent the beginning of 2020 to its record high in September, when it started to slowly decline. In Montana, delivered log prices to mills were up 6% to 10% from 2019, just a small increase compared to national lumber prices.”

While new housing starts slowed down in March and April, as economic mandates befell the business world, there were other events that boosted activity throughout the year. There was a lot of post wild fire rebuilding and “a fairly mild winter through the end of the year that supported higher demand for wood products.”

“What we saw in wood products manufacturing were slight declines in earnings and in the number of employees.”

The forecast for wood products in 2021 are mixed, but generally positive, according to Morgan. Lumber and plywood demand is expected to remain strong. New housing starts continue to increase, and the home repair and remodel markets are expected to contribute to strong wood products sales. Likewise, there are positive signs for Montana on the forest management side.

In the longer term forest products has been declining since the 90s. It “has been relatively flat since end of recession,” and predicted earnings will continue to be down and so will employment levels. Although, “we have seen some recovery in workers and employment  in forestry support services.”

In Montana, in 2020 employment was down 8.5%, wages were down 6.7% and lumber production was down 16.5%. – “but not all because of COVID” – in fact when surveyed log buyers and mill controllers reported limited to no impact on their operations due to COVID.

The R-Y sawmill in Townsend curtailed operations mid-year because of a lack of log supply, which had been announced in January 2020. The Idaho Forest Group’s sawmill in St. Regis was down several months for a planned equipment upgrade, then resumed operations in August.

“Montana mills were generally able to continue operating. Even when they had sufficient logs to fill lumber orders, some mills were hard-pressed to match sales and shipping demands. This frenzy was short lived as mills worked through their log inventories while waiting for logging crews to get back into the forest after spring breakup. Lumber production in Montana through the first nine months of 2020 was 318 million board feet (MMBF), down 12.5% compared to the same period in 2019. Employment at Montana mills over the same period was down almost 5%, and wages paid to production workers slipped by about 10.6% compared to 2019.”

Earnings have gone up and primary sales have gone up, said Morgan, but “all that gain has been because prices have gone up and not because of production has.” Production actually declined slightly since 2014.

Lumber production peaked in 1988, and has been declining since even though housing starts have been increasing. That has to do with log supply, said Morgan. Log supply in the state has declining from private and national forest lands. Mills in Montana are operating close to capacity levels.

There are positive signs for Montana on the forest management side, said Morgan. State and federal agencies continue to cooperate under the 2014 Farm Bill’s Good Neighbor Authority to restore forest health, reduce wildfire hazard and harvest timber to meet ecological and economic objectives.

A total of 291,000 acres of former Plum Creek/Weyerhaeuser land was purchased by Green Diamond with plans to manage it as working forests open to the public.

By Jose Bustos

“It’s stupendous, it’s monstrous, it’s even humongous,” some may say, for one of the largest portions of an eye-opening Country Fried Steak ever placed upon a plate.  One of the fluffiest most flavorful Cinnamon Rolls you’ve ever tied on your tongue to taste.  It’s an inch and half thick, and eight and a half inches across, and yet one would say, they “nearly melt in your mouth.”  The frosting is subtly sweet, they’re light and delightfully porous, not thick and chewy, a cuisine-like chorus.  One comment heard, “Cover one with butter, your tongue will flutter.”

Breakfast ordered with bone in ham is surprising, as the ham slice is 10 inches across.  The breakfast burrito is a full 23 ounces, two and a half inches thick, by seven inches in length. One is enough for two to tackle.  The hamburgers are a mouthwatering, tummy stuffing 10 ounces, with a toasted bun, lettuce, tomato and condiments to consume.  For every visit, I’ve asked for a doggy box.  You’ll leave lovingly stuffed with lunch at the Tippy Cow!

The atmosphere is pleasant. The interior motif is relaxing and comfortable. The service is superb.  On entry to the foyer, you’ll be pleasantly greeted with a menagerie of Tippy Cow colorful coffee cups, and cute ‘n’ cuddly, Tippy Cow caps.  I shouldn’t forget, the staff is pleasant and friendly, merry and mooo-ving.

I had to firstly sing the praise of the most impressive items on their menu and Tippy Cow’s showcased pastries before expounding on the restaurant and staff.  It’s lively, dynamic, a family concern, no gambling, no alcohol served, and leisurely dress is part of the theme, hats or caps, plaid shirts and boots, if you so deem.  Harkless and his son Tony are hard-working guys, yet are friendly and always ready with a pleasant Western smile.  Then… the added accolades, Harkless’ wife Melissa.  A ball of bubbly, friendly effervescence, a magnetic smile, and a fun, quick comeback for any smart aleck remark.  A welcome that makes you feel as though she’s known you for the last ten years.  An added bouquet, Leanna, as she scurries around waiting on customers, with a vibrance, a vivacity, a fun infectious energy.  Just meeting the staff is part of a pleasant visit to the Tippy Cow Café.

Harkless had a small successful 10 table café in Portland, Oregon.  A planned trip from Portland, back home to visit his mother in Billings turned out to be an unplanned future venture and purchase of the former Golden Phoenix Chinese restaurant.  While staying at a motel near the vacant restaurant, and with the mere chance of a glance from the room he was staying in, Harkless saw a For Sale sign posted in one of the windows of the former Phoenix Chinese restaurant.  Was it providence, a vision, a fluke, or a touch of serendipity?  Harkless can’t explain it, but it turned out to be an unplanned stratagem to move his family out of riotous Portland and himself back to the hometown he loved and missed.

Without a second thought, Harkless called the real estate agent listed on the ad.  Due to the unwanted location for a planned marketing business, the real estate agency could not get buyers at the asking price.  In an effort to “get rid of it,” the agency accepted what Harkless offered and it was settled.  Harkless bought the building without really conferring with his wife, Melissa, with the adage of “asking forgiveness over permission.”  He asked her, “would you like to move to Montana?”  An emphatic “no” was her answer, as Melissa grew up in Portland and she had never traveled outside of her home state.  She’d heard of and feared the brutal Montana winters.  But with the political climate and the turmoil it caused in Portland, Melissa thought again about the suggestion, then agreed.  Melissa, their son Tony and his fiancé Leanna, decided to chance a new chapter in their lives. 

Tony, now The Tippy Cow Manager, and his fiancé Leanna liked the idea to try something new, so they signed on for the move to open a restaurant in a town they knew nothing about. They sold their homes in Portland, and Harkless sold his “D Street Café,” and all moved to Billings in January 2020.  They had no idea what their restaurant would look like, or what to name it, but they had what so many successful business owners have, the strength of character, the mettle, the faith in themselves and their dreams.  The bonus, the one thing that Harkless had in his pocket, was the successful experience with his café in Portland.

The Tippy Cow Café… now how did the Harknesses come up with that name?  While still in Portland, a friend brought him a sign that read, “don’t tip our cows, tip our staff.”  For whatever reason, he brought the sign with him, and again, was it serendipity?  In the process of remodeling the building, they couldn’t agree on a name for their new venture.  Melissa thought “Tippy Cow” was cute.  Harkless didn’t like it, but chose five names that included “Tippy Cow” and sent those names to a half dozen friends for their thought, and they ALL chose, yes – “Tippy Cow.”  That sign is now part of the Tippy Cow interior, which is located on the corner of Airport Road and Main Street in Billings. 

Harkless and family, along with friend Matt Tooley, gutted, then proceeded to remodel the interior, with nothing more than ideas they came up with as they went along.  The interior color was pink, and the floor was carpeted, so they had to paint the walls and scrape the floor.  The floor was then covered with attractive wood laminate.  Harkless calls this their “on the spot designing.”  With that they ended up with lots of natural light, augmented with interior lighting, and a soft beige and gray motif.  Corrugated lower walls and cultured stone adorn the interior to compliment the flooring, along with accented burnt pine trim. 

But then, the tables, the chairs – what will they be?  Harkless bought pine wood chairs from a California warehouse at $6 apiece, but could not find a local woodworker to build booths that would match.  He was able to find a craftsman in Spokane that was able to match the rustic pattern that matched the chairs.  Following the match up of the tables to the chairs, the burnt wood trim was an “on the spot” design that fits neatly with the western rustic look.  After weeks of hard work, Harkless comments, “we had fun doing it.”

By Daniel Brooks, Billings Chamber of Commerce

Today is legislative day 37 of a 90-day session, placing us within act two of this three-act show. The story’s characters have been introduced and now move into the confrontation stage. We can expect to see far fewer bills moved with unanimous votes as partisan priorities divide the legislature.

Although the session seemed to be moving quickly already, the pace is expected to pick up as deadlines for bill introduction draw near. Typically committees will hear 3-4 bills. Feb. 24 was the last day for lawmakers to introduce General Bills. With only 970 bills introduced so far, out of 3,354 bill draft requests, many will never get a hearing before the end of the session—hundreds of idle Chekhov guns that never served their purpose.  

One bill we hope to see pass before the credits roll on this legislative session is House Bill 340, sponsored by Speaker of the House Wylie Galt. The bill revises the Montana Economic Development Industry Advancement (MEDIA) Act, passed with bipartisan support in 2019, which provides tax credits for film production in Montana. Revisions proposed by HB 340 include allowing more expenditures to qualify for the credit and removing the state’s $10 million cap on credits issued.  

According to a June 2020 study, the MEDIA Act resulted in $47.6 million in total economic impact in Montana by incentivizing film production in the state. With all that we’ve got to offer—the old west, mountains, railroads, open highways, rivers that run through it, and of course THE BIG SKY—adding tax credits is like making an offer film productions can’t refuse. Just last year the television series Yellowstone moved filming exclusively to Montana, leaving the crew to contemplate, “I don’t think we’re in Utah anymore,”…probably.

 Before you start thinking this won’t benefit Billings, I’ll point out that nobody puts Billings in a corner. The film We Burn Like This, currently in post-production was shot in Billings and Butte. And the study mentioned above shows Yellowstone County hasn’t been left out of the mix, with multiple film and television productions in 2019.

Besides the exposure and tourism draw, additional film production in Montana means jobs. And not just for those in showbiz. Small businesses are tapped to provide materials, equipment, and services. The study also identifies benefits to real estate, healthcare, and other professional sectors.

Governor Gianforte signed his first executive order, establishing the Red Tape Relief Task Force. Led by Lt. Governor Kristen Juras, the group is tasked with reviewing state agencies and identifying regulations that are excessive, outdated, and unnecessary and that disproportionately impact small business.

Looking at some bills:

House Bill 340

Revise the MEDIA Act film tax credits

Speaker Wylie Galt (R), Martinsdale

Chamber Supports

Expanding the MEDIA Act tax credits and allowing more expenditures to qualify for the credit will build on the success our state has already realized through the 2019 legislation. Bringing more film production to the state means more jobs in a creative, high-skill industry, more work for small businesses that provide resources and services for film productions, and more exposure to our state, attracting more people interested in experiencing firsthand the splendor of Montana. The bill is likely to see strong support from the business community who are already supporters of the MT Film Coalition. In House Committee.

House Bill 424

Revise individual income tax laws

Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter (D)Billings

Chamber Opposes

This bill revises the individual income tax by adding a top marginal tax rate of 8.9% for income in excess of $500,000. It also increases the earned income tax credit (EITC). Earlier this session we expressed our support for the Governor’s tax bills SB 159 and SB 182, to reduce individual income taxes and put in place conditions to lower those taxes in the future when the economy is doing well. We believe it’s important, especially as we face a long road to economic recovery, that taxes on small business be lowered, reducing the cost of doing business in our state. As of this writing there is no fiscal note for the bill. In House Taxation Committee.

House Bill 43

Expand practice of telemedicine

Rep. Rhonda Knudsen (R)Culbertson

Chamber Supports

Despite all of the negative that has come from the Covid pandemic, a silver lining may be the advancement and expansion of telehealth. While we appreciate the draw of the Billings healthcare community, bringing Montanans from across the state who will shop with our businesses during their stay, we recognize the value to our state when people have better access to care. This bill ensures state health plans, group benefit plans, and student health plans include coverage for telehealth and defines telehealth as not dependent on location (i.e. predetermined sites). On February 17th, the bill will be heard in Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Safety.

House Bill 372

Eliminate business equipment tax

Rep. Brandon Ler (R)Savage

Chamber Monitoring

This bill would eliminate the business equipment tax in Montana. While we thank the sponsor for his efforts on this worthy cause, we believe a more measured approach, offered in the Governor’s and Rep. Kassmier’s HB 303, is more appropriate considering our economic circumstance. A fiscal note for HB 372 is not yet available, but we can assume the reduction to the general fund, local governments, and others will be substantial. We’re optimistic that Montana will have realized a full recovery by the next legislative session, at which point we can discuss further reductions of the business equipment tax. For now we’ll monitor HB 372.

Culminating years of work, a small satellite designed and built by Montana State University students  was launched on Feb. 20, aboard a cargo resupply rocket bound for the International Space Station.

The bread loaf-sized satellite, called by the acronym IT-SPINS, will dock at the space station until later this spring, then be propelled into orbit and commence a more than six-month mission of measuring the properties of Earth’s atmosphere at the edge of outer space.

Since the project kicked off in 2015 with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, more than 30 MSU students in MSU’s Space Science and Engineering Laboratory have been involved in developing the satellite, according to David Klumpar, SSEL director and research professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. The launch will mark the 12th time a small satellite designed and built by MSU students in SSEL has been sent to outer space.

“We give students the opportunity to take a lot of responsibility in developing the mission, designing and making the hardware, putting it all together and then testing it to make sure it’ll survive the launch and work in space,” Klumpar said. “It’s a really hands-on experience.”

Using a specialized sensor created by the nonprofit research institute SRI International, the satellite will measure ultraviolet light emitted by charged particles, or ions, in the upper layers of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere and thermosphere. IT-SPINS stands for Ionosphere-Thermosphere Scanning Photometer for Ion-Neutral Studies. The study could lead to improved forecasting of “space weather” in which variations in solar ultraviolet and X-ray radiation cause the number and intensity of ions to increase, sometimes interfering with satellites and orbiting spacecraft.

Besides the sensor, the satellite — including solar panels, batteries, communications hardware and a variety of computerized controls — was almost entirely designed and built by students, mainly engineering and computer science majors, with the help of SSEL staff, Klumpar noted.

Nevin Leh, who earned his bachelor’s in computer science from MSU in 2016, worked on the project as a junior and senior. He programmed the software that sends commands to the satellite, tracks it in the sky and downloads the data it collects.

Recent months have been a scramble as Leh, along with other SSEL staff and students, went through the final rounds of testing to ready the satellite for launch. “After you send something to space, you can’t just go up there and fix it,” Leh said.

Part of the testing involved putting the satellite in a vacuum chamber at MSU and cycling the temperature between minus-20 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit, simulating the harsh sun and chilling shade the MSU creation must endure as it orbits the Earth 14 times per day. The MSU team included specialized materials and coatings in the design to help the device retain needed warmth while also radiating excess heat.

SSEL will be involved in monitoring IT-SPINS and downloading data when the satellite passes within line-of-sight of the MSU campus, which will happen a couple times per day, according to Klumpar. MSU researchers will be involved in analyzing the data using a software developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, a collaborator on the project.

B&F Excavating, of Columbia Falls has sold to Integrated Securities Solutions of Kalispell.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center, which is part of the National Interagency Fire Center, put the estimated cost of fighting the 75 large wildfires Montana in 2020 at $55 million. Those fires burned a combined 335,242 acres of land.

The expansion of Headframe Spirits whisky making capacity will require a $1.8 million capital investment to expand distilling and whiskey-storage capacity. The company will become by far the largest producer of American single malt whiskey. Over the next six years, they expect to make 20,000 barrels, using Montana barley. The whiskey will be made and aged at the company’s Kelley site for a large distilling company that will anonymous, To live up to the terms of the contract Headframe will produce 24 to 30 barrels a day.

The state health department will be forced by the legislative budget subcommittee to leave the former Montana Development Center campus in Boulder. The Legislature passed a bill in 2015 to close the center within two years. The state-run institution housed people with developmental disabilities. 

Governor Gianforte recently got a firsthand look at the material that will go unused to build the Keystone XL pipeline. The Governor also talked with construction heads, energy managers and local officials who voiced their concerns about the president’s decision.

Acela Truck Company, the Belgrade company which makes mobile morgue trailers has begun  making mobile vaccine trailers.

The state of North Dakota’s eight commercial airports posted a total of 42,238 airline boarding’s for January 2021, a 57 percent decline in passengers from the same month last year.

George Willett has sold Showdown Montana ski area to his daughter, Katie Boedecker, Willett has owned the ski area for 47 years.

In Bozeman, the number of new real estate listings decreased 4.8% in January compared to last year, from 105 to 100. Pending sales were down 10%, going from 120 to 108. The number of closed sales decreased 23.8%, from 101 to 77. The average days on market decreased 62.7%, from 75 to 28. Median sales price increased 24.4% from $450,000 to $560,000. Sellers received 99.7% of their list price, up from 97.5% last January. The inventory of available homes dropped 66.8%, from 364 to 121, while, the months’ supply of inventory fell 70.4%, from 2.7 to 0.8.  

In a study of 24 institutions of higher learning in Montana, Montana State University I Bozeman was ranked as the top college in Montana by for 2021.

Longtime Great Falls business JJ’s Bakery has announced that it will close in April. Owners John and Erin Williams thanked their customers and staff saying. They plan to focus on their other business, The Burger Bunker, at 24 5th St. S.

Bob Rowe, president and chief executive officer of NorthWestern Corporation announced changes. Brian Bird is to become president and chief operating officer; Crystal Lail is to become chief financial officer; Jeanne Vold, vice president – technology; Stephen Adik and Julia Johnson are retiring from Board; and Dana Dykhouse is to become chair.

Following the Governor’s lifting of the face mask mandate, the city of Whitefish, enacted an emergency measure to re-impose, for 90 days, the mandate locally. Emergency Ordinance 21-01 requires that “all businesses, government offices, or other persons responsible for indoor spaces open to the public shall require and take reasonable measures to ensure people wear a face covering that covers their mouth and nose at all times while entering or remaining in any indoor spaces open to the public.” 

Montana’s pulse producers received some good news last month when it was announced that a major processing plant has reopened in Glacier County. A newly formed joint venture called AgroLink, LLC announced in early January that it is resuming operations at the Pardue Grain processing facility 12 miles west of Cut Bank. Pardue Grain elevators had been in operation on the 35-acre site since 1959.In 2018, the company completed an $8.25 million expansion project adding a food grade pulse processing plant and warehouse; however, Pardue Grain was forced into bankruptcy just a year later after U.S. exports of pulses — field peas, lentils and chickpeas — plunged due to excess global supply and the imposition of new import tariffs by China and India.AgriLink purchased the Pardue Grain plant last September at a lender ordered auction for an undisclosed price. AgriLink is a joint venture between Singapore based Agrocorp International and LinkOne Ingredient Solutions, a major producer of high quality pet foods based in Missouri.

Great Falls, too, is hoping to land a medical school. The private, nonprofit Touro College hopes to partner with Benefis Health System for a medical school. Montana University System has approved New York-based Touro’s plan to offer post-secondary degree programs in Montana, and is working to attain accreditation for the new location through the American Osteopathic Association’s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.

WinCo Foods has opened two employee-owned 24 hour locations in Missoula and Bozeman. Last year, the Bozeman location started construction in June and, it took four weeks for employees to stock the new shelves. 

Last week, Governor Gianforte signed into law SB 61, which makes fishing free on Mother’s Day weekend. Senator Pat Flowers (D-Bozeman) introduced the bill which got approval of the State Legislature.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Several times my husband mentioned that I needed to listen to this guy on the radio but I didn’t listen much to the radio except when traveling in the car, so that’s when it happened. I even remember what street we were on when I first heard Rush Limbaugh. We were on Central Avenue near the bowling alley. He took my breath away, so astounded I was. It was a burst of sunshine in what I had not fully realized was a gray and cloudy day.

I was astounded that this guy was speaking so forthrightly, right out loud in public! My first reaction was to be concerned for his safety and I said as much to my husband.

The fact is, politically correct speech was in full sway even in the 80s  – and suddenly here was someone loudly speaking truth. What he was saying was little more than the common sense most people already knew, but the fact he was speaking it— so publically – that was the greatness that everyone immediately recognized  – – most especially those who disagreed.

During the week after hearing about Rush’s death, over and over we heard or read stories as people recalled exactly where they were when they first heard Rush Limbaugh.  Think about that. It wasn’t like an earthshaking event such as the assassination of the President or landing on the moon, this was a guy talking on the radio. It was Rush shaking things up.

So phenomenal was he that tens of millions of people immediately took note upon first hearing him. Why would that be? As brilliant as he was or as talented as he was, that wouldn’t have been so evident in just a few minutes – what people heard was a brave man speaking his mind. So rare was that, that it was profoundly noteworthy.

For all of Rush Limbaugh’s talent and innovation and brilliance, what always impressed me most was his courage.  It’s become clear to me over the years that more so than brilliance, talent or hard work, by far the most rare human attribute is courage – to have the internal strength and integrity to speak the truth as you see it. 

Such is a very sad and disturbing reality to have to concede, because of course, in a supposedly free country, everyone should feel comfortable speaking their minds. But, over the years, silencing of free expression, especially of conservative or freedom-oriented ideas, has escalated. But for 32 years, Rush Limbaugh was never daunted. He never faltered in speaking ever louder, every day.

Rush very seldom had a guest. While he often gave reasons for that, one reason we all knew was that most guests would only dilute the program. Seldom could any guest put forth more compelling, interesting and knowledgeable conversation than could Rush. Whenever I was listening I was always waiting for some unique bit of insight about events of the day, and he usually had it.

One of the most profound insights— about which he came to frequently remind us— was that he was not really the target of those who attacked him and hated him. He was a proxy for all of us in his audience, and for all who dared to have a point view that differed from the politically correct.  Over the years the truth of that insight only broadened as it has become more and more inherent in most political opposition from the establishment, Left or Right.

The fact that there are tens of millions of people who loved him and appreciated him is why the Left hated Rush and why they could never admit his greatness, as they can seldom admit any great achievements. Over the last few months, Rush reiterated many times that the political establishment is well aware of those millions and that they fear us.

Given the amazing political events we have seen unfold over the past couple of years, including the wide ranging efforts to disrupt and end public discourse, one can hardly refute the point. There’s only one reason to silence the millions and that is because you cannot intellectually refute their ideas, and because you know that if disseminated those ideas would prevail. For such people the only course of action is to use force to keep people from speaking and thinking.

One of the biggest mistakes the political establishment ever made was to end the “Fairness Doctrine.” That’s what gave us Rush Limbaugh and unleashed free speech and the free reign of ideas within the realm of public broadcasting.

Under the grip of federal regulations radio served little purpose other than listening to music. In requiring radio stations to guarantee opposite points of view, there became no points of view except those considered “settled truths,” which were regularly pushed at us in the news propagated by the only three television networks allowed. No one would take on the financial cost or legal liability of allowing public discourse.  Just think where we would be now if it were not for radio, now that most other communication and venues have been shut down.

Many have talked, this past week, about how inspiring Rush was, far more so than to talk about politics.  Everything about Rush was a lesson and an inspiration. He was a real live testament to what he believed about free will and the strength of free markets. His passion, innovation, talent and most of all his commitment to his beliefs, not only helped him build a fortune from the bottom up, but he, as many have said, saved the radio industry through that innovation and determination. In forging that path he made way for opportunities and success for the thousands who followed in the industry. This was indeed a free market at work and it is that freedom of choice which stands threatened once again.

Rush was always upbeat and positive, which not only made listening to him a bright spot in the day, but inspired his listeners to persevere. Many times he would advise, “follow your passion,” which at root was what it all was about, most especially the politics. An individual cannot follow their passion unless they have the freedom to do so and that is fundamentally what the US Constitution and free markets are all about – individual freedom to choose and to live. Rush was doing just that every day before our very eyes.

But for all of that, we would know nothing about Rush — there would have been no saving of an industry and no inspiration, knowledge or understanding of politics or of life, if there had not first come the actions of one brave man. That is his legend and the legacy — having the courage to speak.

It is the challenge of each one of us to continue that legacy.

Concerned about the economic growth potential for Billings Heights the Billings Heights Task Force is putting its all behind a coming election of the Billings Heights Water District Board.

The Task Force has frequently been a forum at which businesspeople, developers and real estate agents have voiced concerns about how the Heights Water District Board makes decisions and imposes fees and policies which often stand as barriers to business development in the Heights, said Jennifer Owen, chairwoman of the Billings Heights Task Force.

Owen said that as a lifelong resident of the Heights she has always known that Heights residents wanted all the amenities, services and shopping that other communities seem to attract, and she always wondered why it never happened in the Heights. As she became involved with the Task Force and started asking “why not”, the Heights Water District board “kept coming up” as the reason.

The complaints were that the board was inconsistent; processing was burdensome with multiple reviews required, time lines are inconsistent, and fees are exorbitant.

As the issues were being pursued,  it was unveiled that three positions on the Water District board were up for election – something that may never have happened before in the 63 year history of the district. No one can recall there ever having been an election of the board even though state law requires it.

Eight Heights residents, including the three board incumbents, have filed for that election which will be held on May 4. The Heights Task Force plans to sponsor a candidates’ forum sometime in March, said Owen. Ballots will be mailed out on April 16.

Owen said that they are anxious to let property owners know, especially people owning commercial property that they must notify the county elections office that they are eligible to vote in the election. Elections Director Bret Rutherford said that there are some 11,000 voters but if they do not live in the district his office has no way of knowing that they are eligible. Property owners are urged to contact the Election Department to find out if they need to complete a form and confirm that they own property in the district.

Filing as candidates are incumbents Steven Blood, Donna Dinsmore, and Roger Ostermiller, as well as Ming Cabrera, Janet Carson, Joshua Benson, Laura Dragger, and Dennis Cook.

Owen and two other concerned citizens, real estate broker and Heights resident, Dave Goodridge and performance engineer, Scott Aspenlieder, met with media reporters on Tuesday to explain their plans for the election and their concerns. They are unified in believing that things have to change as the Heights enters a new era and new opportunities are emerging with what amounts to over $100 million in infrastructure development with the building of the Billings Bypass and the Inner Belt Loop.

Goodridge said he grew up in the Heights and “I remember when there were still things to do in the Heights.”

As a real estate broker, Goodridge said that he has spent time trying to understand why many of those businesses went away and why so few new businesses happen. The situation was all the more perplexing because the lower cost of land should make the Heights a more competitive location for businesses.

“I always had the idea that maybe it was happening because the developed community is penned in by residential,” he said. But since then he came to learn about the problems developers and would-be businesses have in trying to expand or locate in the Heights when they begin dealing with the Heights Water District.

The District imposes what Goodridge calls a “cover charge” to even begin the process of dealing with the water district. “If you have a five acre or ten acre piece of ground you want to develop, the Water District charges 23.3 cents per square foot just to be able to submit an application.”

What Goodridge calls a “cover charge” ends up consuming the margin created by lower land costs and eliminates one of the Heights biggest advantages in attracting development.

The District calls it an “Annexation Buy In Fee for a Proposed Service Area,” which is not a fee any other district or water service charges. It adds $10,147 per acre which can quickly amount to a $50,000 cost right up front.

All other more typical fees are also charged, such as system development fees, fees on lines and other charges for plan reviews and installation charges. But the fees are not consistent from one developer to another and time frames are often long and drawn-out increasing costs even more for developers, say the complainants.

If the District wants to put in a larger pipeline than what is needed by a development, in anticipation of potential future demand, they assess the developer the full cost of the larger line. Other districts do not do that. The developer is only charged for the size they need, according to Goodridge and Aspenlieder.

Aspenlieder expressed indignation that the district charges the developer for fire hydrants which no other community does because they are considered a community safety benefit. If the water line is of any length the added cost to the development could easily amount to $200,000.

In an incident involving the development of a subdivision that needed a pump station that would cost well over $100,000, the board insisted that only one brand of pump was acceptable. “I can understand that to some degree,” he said, “you don’t want do have to deal with all kinds of pumps on your system. The problem was this was the most expensive pump in the country.” The difference in such extraneous costs add as much as $5000 to the cost of a residential lot.

All these things add to the costs of any development, say Aspenlieder and Goodridge — easily enough to discourage businesses who can go to the other end of town or to another community, and not have to pay such costs.

Asked “What does the money go for?”

“We don’t know,” was the answer. The board refuses to make their records available to the public or even to new board members, according to county appointed board member, Pam Ellis.

Aspenlieder said that in defense of the Heights Water District it is their charge to deliver water to the public at reasonable rates, and they do that. When comparing monthly rates in the district to those in Billings or in other communities, they are very competitive.

“What they have failed to realize is that how they do that has a drastic impact on the community’s economic development,” he said, “Their failure to hear that message has brought us to the where we are today.”

Aspenlieder went on to point out that there has been little opportunity for the board to hear the message since they hold no hearings in rate making or elections. And, one of the biggest concerns voiced by others is that they do not allow the public to attend meetings, which is a violation of the state’s public information laws.

Owen said that the lack of accountability is one of the things she wants to see changed. “As a rate payer, I shouldn’t have to fight for agendas and minutes and records.”

Goodridge said that in instances in which the board is not following state laws, while there are grounds for lawsuits, it’s not something anyone wants to do.

“It is unnecessary,” said Owen, who hopes that the election will result in changes that will open up the District’s operation.

The complaints echoed those of others who testified before the Montana State Legislature last week regarding a bill – HB 255 — that its sponsor, Rep. Larry Brewster, (R), HD44, a Billings Heights resident, said he was introducing in large part because of the problems with the Heights Water District. The bill unanimously passed out of the House Local Government Committee on Feb. 18 and is making its way through the House.

It was opposed by Steve Wade on behalf of the membership of Montana Rural Waster Systems. He said the bill is taking “a sledge hammer to all the districts,” for a “one system issue.”

Ellis testified that the water district board locked the door to keep members of the pubic from attending one meeting. She expressed her concerns too that businesses were being dissuaded from doing business in the Heights. Some go to the extreme of laying pipe under roads in order to get water from the City of Billings and avoid the Heights Water District.

Also speaking in support of the bill was City of Billings Administrator Chris Kukulski, who said that he was barred from attending a meeting  and further said about the district, “…this is the first time I have run into something this dysfunctional.”

Ming Cabrera, Chairman of the Billings Heights Business Association, also spoke to the state legislature saying he was concerned about the negative impact the District’s actions and policies on the Heights’ economy.  It won’t do any good to improve Heights infrastructure, without change in how the Water District functions, he said.

The Heights Water District, as with similar districts throughout the state, is a stand-alone organization that operates under its own authority with no oversight from any other government, although the city and the county appoint one member to the board. The district was formed under state statute which governs how such districts should function, and since it collects and spends public monies it is subject to open meeting and public information laws under state statute.


Sisters Of Charity Of Leavenworth/Saunders Construction Inc, 1233 N 30th St, Com Remodel, $350,000

Oval Energy LLCS/Otis Creek Construction, 520 Wicks Ln, Com Remodel, $21,000

Sisters Of Charity Of Leavenworth/Saunders Construction Inc, 1233 N 30th St, Com Remodel, $497,735

CDH, LLC/1537 Avenue D LLC, 1537 Avenue D, Com Remodel, $484,000

Broadwater Ventures LLC/Neumann Construction, 1110 Broadwater Ave, Com Remodel, $20,000

School District #2/Onsite Energy Inc, 1441 Governors Blvd, Com New Other, $138,850

Deaconess Medical Center Of Bi/Langlas & Assoc., Inc., 2800 10th Ave N, Com Remodel, $4,169,000

Deaconess Medical Center Of Bi/Hardy Construction Co, 2800 10th Ave N, Com Remodel,             $1,000,000

Sisters Of Charity Of Leavenworth/Saunders Construction Inc, 1041 N 29th St, Com Remodel,                       $950,000


McCall Development Inc/McCall Development, 1650 Annas Garden Ln, Res New Accessory Structure, $33,792

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 815 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,    $172,270

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 819 Presidio Ln, Oakland Built Homes Inc, New Single Family, $174,984

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 823 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,     $172,270

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 827 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,   $167,668

CDH, LLC/CDH, LLC, 2214 Greenbriar Rd, Res New Single Family, $333,126

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 811 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,     $174,422

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 812 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,   $172,270

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 820 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,    $172,270

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 824 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,    $174,422

Oakland Built Homes Inc/Oakland Built Homes Inc, 828 Presidio Ln, Res New Single Family,    $172,270

McCall Development Inc/McCall Development, 1644 Annas Garden Ln, Res New Single Family, $297,898

McCall Development Inc/McCall Development, 1650 Annas Garden Ln, New Single Family,    $292,845

J & M Development LLC/J & M Development, 1129 Pumpkin Hollow Cir, Res New Single Family,    $205,073

J & M Development LLC/J & M Development, 1141 Pumpkin Hollow Cir, Res New Single Family,   $243,859

Starks Real Estate Group/Billings Best Builders LLC, 815 Mission Oaks Dr, Res New Two Family,      $412,304

Trent Parks/Billings Best Builders LLC, 1640 Kanga Way, Res New Two Family, $390,540

Trent Parks/Billings Best Builders LLC, 1634 Kanga Way, Res New Two Family, $390,540

Trent Parks/Billings Best Builders LLC, 1628 Kanga Way, Res New Two Family, $390,540

Trent Parks/Billings Best Builders LLC, 1622 Kanga Way, Res New Two Family, $390,540

Trent Parks/Billings Best Builders LLC, 1616 Kanga Way, Res New Two Family, $390,540

NA/Trails West Homes LLC, 931 Grouse Berry St, Res New Single Family, $227,742

Trails West Homes, LLC/Trails West Homes LLC, 816 Grouse Berry St, Res New Single Family,              $215,158

Trails West Homes, LLC/Trails West Homes LLC, 809 Grouse Berry St, Res New Single Family,                $224,286

NA/Trails West Homes LLC, 810 Grouse Berry St, Res New Single Family, $215,158

The ATM LLC/Billings Best Builders LLC, 6314 Absaloka Ln, Res New Two Family, $310,168

Calling to Reinstate Keystone XL Permit

Montana’s Attorney General Austin Knudsen led a coalition of 14 attorneys general last week calling on President Joe Biden to reconsider his unilateral revocation of the 2019 Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline and advised him that states are reviewing available legal options to protect their citizens and interests.

In letter, Knudsen and the attorneys general coalition reiterate the harms Biden’s decision will inflict on Americans: thousands of displaced workers, increased reliance on energy produced in Russia and the Middle East, and lost economic activity and opportunity.

“Your decision will result in devastating damage to many of our states and local communities. Even those states outside the path of the Keystone XL pipeline—indeed all Americans—will suffer serious, detrimental consequences,” Knudsen led the attorneys general in writing to Biden. “In Montana for instance, killing Keystone XL will likely cost the state approximately $58 million in annual tax revenue. Montana will lose the benefits of future easements and leases, and several local counties will lose their single-biggest property taxpayer. The loss of Keystone XL’s economic activity and tax revenues are especially devastating as five of the six impacted counties are designated high-poverty areas.”

The pipeline would run 285 miles through Montana crossing through six counties. Montana businesses, local governments, and utilities have made substantial investments in preparation for the pipeline, which are now rendered lost by Biden’s action. As a result, energy bills for some Montanans’ are likely to increase and schools and local governments in eastern Montana will lose out on much needed revenue.

Knudsen criticized Biden for failing to consult the State of Montana on the costs to consumers and economic impacts, setting a dangerous precedent for other permits and projects, and “virtue signaling to special interests.”

“Please be aware that the states are reviewing available legal options to protect our residents and sovereign interests. In the meantime, we urge you to reconsider your decision to impose crippling economic injuries on states, communities, families, and workers across the country,” Knudsen and the attorneys general wrote.

The letter was also signed by attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia.

Rocky Vista University (RVU) announced that it has selected Billings, as the proposed site for development of a four year medical school – the first of its kind in the state of Montana.

Billings was selected after an extensive location search by RVU to continue its mission-led focus of providing quality healthcare education while inspiring students to serve with compassion, integrity, and excellence. While RVU graduates pursue the full spectrum of medical specialties, the majority choose primary care, and many of them practice in underserved and rural areas. RVU graduates become lifelong learners prepared to meet the diverse healthcare needs of tomorrow through innovative education, relevant research, and compassionate service.

The proposed Billings campus, at the corner of Monad and Shiloh, will become the third RVU campus in the Mountain West Region.

RVU’s first campus was founded in 2006 in Parker, Colorado and a second campus was developed in 2017 in Ivins, Utah, graduating its first class in 2021. RVU is accredited by the American Osteopathic Association Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA), Higher Learning Commission, Accreditation Review Commission for the Physician Assistant, and the American College of Surgeons. RVU has demonstrated excellent student outcomes since inception and has a 100% residency placement rate.

RVU President and CEO, Dr. Clint Adams said, “Montana is a natural fit for RVU and our regional focus on healthcare education and we are so excited by the prospect of bringing a RVU campus to Billings. We were impressed with the quality of the healthcare system in Montana and look forward to helping meet the need for graduate medical education opportunities for students in Montana and across the region.”

The proposed campus will house a 135,000 square foot, technologically-advanced facility on a 12-acre campus on the west-end of Billings. This project is completely private-sector funded. The expected direct and indirect economic impact of the proposed campus during the two-year start-up period (2021-23) is expected to total $78.6 million, provide 350 jobs, and add more than $1.2 million in taxes to communities in the region. By July 2026, upon full operation of all four classes, the proposed medical school is expected to support directly and indirectly 304 jobs in the region, generate $67 million in annual total economic impact and add $3.3 million in state and local government revenue. Support for Montana’s Healthcare System Montana’s healthcare landscape was the initial driver for RVU to look at Billings as the site for the first Montana Medical School campus.

There is currently no established four year undergraduate medical school in Montana, limited graduate medical education and Montana ranks 44th in the country for the number of primary-care physicians. Educating students in Montana is integral to keeping physicians in the region long-term, as it is estimated that in 2021 over 200 Montana college graduates will seek to further their education in healthcare and apply to MD and/or DO medical schools.

The Alliance, comprised of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare/SCL Health, and RiverStone Health, is engaged in the launch of the medical school by exploring the development of clinical rotations for the 3rd and 4th year students beginning in 2025 and further development of Graduate Medical Education (GME) with other Montana hospitals statewide. RVU partnered with Big Sky Economic Development (BSED) to fully understand the opportunity of siting their proposed Montana campus in