Part of the magic of Billings' economy comes from our deep and diverse base of industries. One of the largest is Energy, dominated by Oil and Gas. Yellowstone County is one of a small number of counties in our nation with three oil refineries and has experienced the benefits of the industry for decades. As with Billings’ other major industries - Healthcare, Finance, Agriculture, among others - there are a number of ways to quantify the value that the industry brings to the region. We might look at the number of jobs created: in 2019, Montana had 16,207 Energy jobs, with 6,000 of those in Fossil Fuels. Roughly 5% of the Billings workforce works in Energy or a related field. Billings’ three oil refineries alone employ around 1,000 people, mostly full-time workers. We could also look at the annual economic output generated by the industry. In the case of Billings, this is again dominated by oil and gas, with the three refineries alone injecting around $120 million every year between salaries, taxes, and fees.
While this type of information is useful and relevant, sometimes a more intimate perspective is helpful - a look at the opportunities for prosperity the industry affords local individuals and families.
Frederick Wilburn is a third-generation Montanan. His family moved from Alabama to Montana in 1949 for, as he says, “obvious reasons”. A dozen of his ancestors - grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, and uncles - underwent a multi-stage journey from the Deep South to the West in hope of a better life. Railroad jobs were the initial draw; the family had heard that starting salaries were double their wages in Alabama. Family and friends pooled their money and eventually the family made it to Hardin, where they stayed for a year before moving to Billings. Frederick’s grandparents and uncles soon found work on the railroad, at the Stillwater Mine, and mining coal.
The rumors were true, and their hopes for a better life proved founded: “My family went from dirt floors in Alabama to linoleum floors in Montana.” Along with financial improvement came another lifestyle upgrade: social and emotional health and well-being. As Wilburn’s grandparents transitioned from dirt to linoleum, they also went from being known as “boy” and “girl” in Alabama to “sir” and “madam” in Billings. Montana has had the same approach to new arrivals for a very long time: treat everyone fairly, but respect must be earned. Everyone has to earn respect here, anyone can earn respect here. Entitlement for none, opportunity for all. Given initial fair treatment and an opportunity, Wilburn’s family set about earning respect and quickly integrated into the city, becoming a part of the community’s life from the South Side to the Heights to the West End.
In 1969, Wilburn’s grandfather ran for Billings City Council. Wilburn says: “He ran as a black Independent and he lost the race. But he won. He shook hands with a white man on the front page of the newspaper.” No one was surprised that a political newcomer, especially one neither explicitly nor implicitly affiliated with a major political party, lost a race. What was unusual for Wilburn’s family was the opportunity to run in a fair election and be treated with dignity regardless of the outcome.
As many people who grew up here know, simply being in Billings brings no guarantee of comfort, and the same is true of Frederick Wilburn. While his family experienced improvement, his life had plenty of challenges. His parents separated when he was 5, and his stepfather was dealt with drug addiction. Though he grew up attending Garfield and Orchard Elementary, Riverside Middle School, and Senior, Frederick never graduated high school and fell into the street life for a time - narcotics, the gang lifestyle, eventually seeing a close friend murdered.
When he realized that that was no way to live, he got his GED, went to Las Vegas College, and graduated with a degree in Finance. From there, he got into urban entertainment promotions in Billings via his company Preferred 1 Global. Like many people, the 2008 Financial Crisis forced him to make a pivot, and a friend got him a job as a laborer at a local refinery. He started at the bottom, digging holes and jackhammering asphalt, but he has been there ever since, working his way up the ladder and now enjoying a position of prosperity and comfort in the tech craft shop. “Having grown up well below the poverty line, I now have an income that puts me in the upper middle class and allows me the flexibility to run a side business and build investments.” Perhaps most significantly, Wilburn’s four children, ages 15, 12, 1, and 3 months, live a life characterized by stability and growth, giving them the opportunity to develop themselves and the promise of an even better future. Wilburn is excited that he has the ability to build and pass on intergenerational wealth to his children, something uncommon in his family and others like them. Frederick says:
“When my father died, he unintentionally transferred debt to his children. I will transfer assets to my children.”
Wilburn still runs his promoting company on the side, bringing acts to Billings. He has also been building an investment portfolio, including real estate on the South Side where he grew up. Wilburn poignantly summarized the oft-overlooked opportunities that the energy industry has provided: “The oil and gas industry has turned many disadvantaged minorities - gang-bangers, drug sellers, the underbelly of society - into respectable, tax-paying Americans.”
When people are asked to recommend a local business or institution - something that really epitomizes the best that the city has to offer - they give a surprisingly diverse range of answers. Frederick suggested something I truly did not expect: exploring Coulson Park. “Coulson Park is the only place where you can see where the city has been, where it is now, and where it is headed.” Many people are probably unfamiliar with the history of Coulson Park, but it was originally its own community of Coulson, which at one point briefly competed with Billings to be the prime city in the County. Now, many of us don’t even know that Coulson ever existed. Looking back through history, it is a common theme: Billings won. For the Wilburn family in 1949, Billings vs. Alabama: Billings won. If people vote with their feet, one might dare say, in 2021, Billings vs. California: Billings wins.
Unquestionably, geography and broader economic trends have much to do with Billings’ success. But, the true magic of the Magic City undeniably comes from who and what we are. Wilburn says, “Billings is unique - it contains all aspects of where we want to go. We have the outdoors, modern buildings, history, modern technology, and community. There’s a place for everybody. Montana may be the last place on earth where you can come and find out who you are.” In some ways, Montana in general and Billings especially are avatars of America - specifically, what America was always meant to be. For Frederick Wilburn, “America is never the status of greatness today. America is the hope of greatness tomorrow.”