BILLINGS — A bright neon sign that reads 'BUILD' in the lobby of the new Rock31 entrepreneur center says it all. Big Sky Economic Development hopes that Tuesday marked the first step for Billings’ future.
With the demolition of this first wall inside the historic Montana Bank Building at the northeast corner of Skypoint in downtown Billings, a project years in the making can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re 10 months away from opening a fresh set of doors into a new space for entrepreneurs to connect," said BSED executive director Steve Arveschoug.
The idea behind Rock31 is simple: develop new business for the community. Entrepreneurs like Josh Toenyes, co-founder of Billings-based web software company Cardsetter, say this center is badly needed.
“I think the No. 1 thing is having space that’s easy to have a serendipitous connection among entrepreneurs," Toenyes says of Rock31's proposed design. "If you have a bunch of offices, I don’t think that’s helpful. You have to build those relationships, because relationships are important, and sometimes it just takes being in the same space.”
In five years, Cardsetter has gone from local to international because of that relationship-building. It’s a type of business Montana - and Billings specifically - isn’t necessarily known for, but that’s the point.
“You never abandon those industries that are foundational, but you also have to be innovating, growing, changing and incentivizing new companies," Arveschoug said. "Other things that dovetail well with who we are, but start to change the character of and get more diversity in our economy.’
“Look at Silicon Valley. The pillar industry there today wasn’t there in 1970," Toenyes said. "It’s completely different, and that’s 50 years, so it’s a significant amount of time, but that’s the timescale we need to be thinking about. Where is Billings going to be in 50 years, and what can we do to put the foundation in place to make that happen?”
A foundation they hope to build on both the old and the new.
“Efforts like this, building a center for entrepreneurship development, and other amenities in our community - parks, trails, other things that we do, the redevelopment of the Alberta Bair theater just a block away - all that adds to the character of who we are," Arveschoug said. "That makes us attractive to retain our greatest talent and attract new talent, and that’s what drives our economy.”
An economy that evolves by the day.