Big Sky Economic Development finalizes plans for Billings business incubator

In the early 1900s, entrepreneurs went to the Montana National Bank in Billings to request a loan to start their businesses. Soon, the building will serve a similar purpose but will become a hub for entrepreneurial connections, training and more.

After receiving a $2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in 2019, Big Sky Economic Development is finalizing its plans to renovate the Montana National Bank building at 201 N. Broadway to house the organization’s entrepreneurial business incubator, the Rock 31 Entrepreneur Program.

The program launched in 2019 and helps connect entrepreneurs to mentors including accountants, attorneys, and others. These experts can assist in anything from idea development, fundraising, business model development and more.

BSED, a public-private partnership that promotes economic and business growth in Yellowstone County, applied for the grant earlier in 2019 and matched it with another $2 million.

“(Lenders and entrepreneurs) would take a risk together and they would sign a note and the person would walk out the door and start living that dream,” said Steve Arveschoug, executive director of BSED. “And that’s what we think we’ll happen in a new way as this Rock 31 program comes to life.”

All of them agreed that making connections with business owners and experts is an important step to business development.

Without that event, I wouldn’t have had those opportunities,” Hale said.

Drew Gerber recently founded Take Initiative, a service that brings students and small businesses together to give students more options in their career path, especially in rural parts of the state. As he develops his business, one obstacle will be finding capital and scaling to provide access to services across the state. Finding the right people to do it is another issue.

“I’m really focused on that personal interaction, but we really need to figure out how to get all of these opportunities to a large number of kids,” Gerber said.

The building is located in an Opportunity Zone, designed to encourage long-term private investments in low-income communities. The zones provide investors with tax breaks for investing in Opportunity Funds dedicated to these communities. The investments could include revitalization, workforce development, affordable housing, infrastructure and business startup and expansion. The program was developed out of The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

The Opportunity Zone designation in Billings includes the downtown area and hospital corridor. The Montana National Bank building is located within the zone, which allowed BSED to be eligible to apply for grant funding through the EDA.

Arveschoug said he hopes that the project will activate more business development and attract investors to the Opportunity Zone. There’s a goal to help build a stronger economic standing as the country experiences a recession amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We view this project, where it’s located, as a catalyst for additional development in the Opportunity Zone. It’s in the heart of our community,” Arveschoug said.

The first floor of the building will serve as a co-working space with a coffee shop where entrepreneurs can connect. The basement will serve as a work area for those focusing on certain business plans, while the second floor will be used as a training space. The third floor will house the BSED offices.

Services will be provided to entrepreneurs at no cost, but plans to provide a membership program are also in the works. Construction is expected to be complete by spring of 2022.

“We’re kind of the community’s designated, catch all, one stop place to help businesses get engaged, get the resources they need and then be successful,” Arveschoug said.