In the ‘Great Reshuffling,’ People Are Flocking to Montana’s Biggest City. Its Mayor Has a Good Idea Why

Bill Cole, Mayor of Billings, Montana Credit - Tony Smith, courtesy of the City of Billings
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The July 21 front page of the Billings Gazette contained the following stories: A local used a bow and arrow to catch a world record paddle fish (92 pounds), Seekers reported a possible sighting (which turned out to be false) of a missing hiker, and coal production in Montana fell sharply last year. The main story, however, was the real estate boom that swept the nation and its impact on Montana's largest city. "Billings' real estate market is the hottest in the country," the newspaper said, citing an index from the Wall Street Journal that ranked Billings the No. 1 emerging housing market because of its affordability and attractiveness to new flexible workers.
Billings, like many smaller cities, has seen an influx of newcomers since the pandemic and remote working sent many Americans in search of cheaper housing and less stressful lifestyles in homes with more space and shorter commutes. According to an April Zillow study, 11% of Americans moved during the pandemic, which has resulted in a profound shift in priorities for many people. Many of the beneficiaries of such moves are sunny, warm-weather cities in Florida and Texas, but Billings has benefited from people leaving the expensive real estate markets in California and the Seattle area.
The average single-family home in Billings, a metropolitan area population of 184,000, was $ 376,248 in June, 32% more than last year, according to the Wall Street Journal. Another big draw is the 3% unemployment rate, roughly half the national average, and proximity to nature, including Yellowstone National Park and the Beartooth Mountains.
TIME spoke to Bill Cole, Mayor of Billings, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Columbia Law School, about the impact of Great Reshuffling on the community, the factors driving so many Americans to move, and its approach to increased demands to pay to the local infrastructure.
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(This interview has been compressed and edited for the sake of clarity.)
What's behind the many moves to cities like Billings?
My theory is that there are three main influences that make people move. One of them is of course COVID-19. People hit the refresh button for their priorities. And when they hit the update button, friends, family, and community were high on that list, and things like money and careers took a step back.
So unlike other times in history that have seen migration, so aren't people moving to Billings to get rich?
Believe it or not, in Montana, and most certainly Billings, the first question when you meet someone isn't always, “What are you doing?” It's just as likely, “Oh, I see you have a new one Truck. How do you like your new truck? ”Or you will be walking your dog and people will ask,“ Do you hunt birds with your dog? ” It's subtle, but it's important.
What else motivates people to move?
The second is politics. The 2020 election cycle was unusually brutal and divisive. I believe it is possible, although I have no data, that a significant part of the trend towards smaller cities came from the coasts, from blue states to red states. They are people who are looking for other people, who think more like them and who feel more culturally and politically more comfortable.
I've never heard anyone say that before.
We see it - people who are from California, maybe parts of Washington, the Seattle area, major cities. Places like Montana are perceived as further to the right, redder, and that has certain charms for some. When I drove back to the office for this interview, I was sitting behind a BMW 328 with a personalized license plate that said “Trump 24,” which you wouldn't do in downtown Manhattan. Correct me if I'm wrong.
And what's the final reason?
The third factor is economy. You have people who have lost their jobs. They were banished. And so they have an opportunity to move or a motivation to move that they may not have had before. But the economic component does not end there. It can be a trigger, but you still need to be able to move around, and our apartments are significantly cheaper than many previously more popular areas, especially on the coasts: in California, especially in Washington state, in the Seattle area, in the Portland area and even places in Montana like Bozeman and Missoula. Our living space is still much cheaper.
Is Billings gentrified?
Billings is how the rest of Montana used to be. Just this morning, a colleague who had just returned from a few days in Bozeman lamented the way the number of people from outside, trust babies, has changed. [Bozeman is] crowded and his character has changed. People discover Billings and see its advantages, which politically and culturally tend to be mediocre. And, ironically, more ethnically diverse.
Do you get a good bagel in Billings?
Indeed you can, yes you can. Not as good as Zabars.
Billings is still mostly white, right 89%?
That number you threw away is actually a higher percentage of non-whites than other cities in Montana. By Montana standards, 11% non-white is very significant. But the number of the future is the non-white make-up for people under 20 years of age. And if you look at that, about 20% of Billings who are 20 and under are not white. This is our future. If you are interested in ethnic and racial diversity and see it as positive, it increases dramatically.
What happens to property prices and what problems does it create?
It's a real challenge. We, like many other communities, are seeing a tremendous upward trend in home prices. The supply of residential property has now dropped to an average of around 20 days on the market, from a typical 50 days or more. So we can expect this trend to continue for a while as there is a lot of catching up to do.
Do you hear locals grumbling about outsider-induced real estate inflation?
A small amount, yes. Most people recognize the benefits of growth.
How do you deal with the growth and the new demands placed on streets, hospitals, parks, schools by new residents?
The ultimate goal is to make sure that growth pays off. There is always a political tension between the distribution of infrastructure costs between existing residents and new residents. We work pretty hard to make sure developers pay system development fees and connection fees for sewage and water. [Mayor Cole is a former corporate real estate attorney.]
What about cultural issues: You are near the Battle of Little Big Horn, and Native Americans make up almost 5% of the population.
I think most of us first heard of critical racial theory when it became a national controversy. Most of us see the controversy over many of these issues across the country with a small smile - smile is the wrong word - we look at it with blunted eyes. We're still a small town. We try to solve problems from person to person.
Do newcomers have to bring their own job with them?
You don't have to bring your own job. We have a few.
I was surprised to learn that Billings has something of a crime problem. What drives it
In a word, meth. The prevalence of methamphetamine over the past 10 years correlates with the crime rate. Approximately 80% of violent and property crime can be linked to substance abuse, not just meth. Opioids have impacted and become more prominent in the rest of the country, but what drives our crime problem is methamphetamine.
I see some nice cards on your office wall.
I collect antique maps of Montana. I certainly have one of the largest collections of its kind in the state, or probably anywhere.
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