BILLINGS - One year after the coronavirus pandemic delivered a major blow to the Billings business scene, local retail developer Steve Corning says surprisingly the world of retail is back in a big way.
While some retailers reported record sales, for others it was survival of the fittest. Corning told MTN News that nothing compares to April, May, and June of last year, a stretch he refers to as the hardest three months of his 40-year career.
"It was a retail crisis of unmitigated proportions," said Corning. "I had seen over the course of my career, one or two bankruptcies filed and you would lose 30 or 35-thousand square feet. That's certainly a lot of square footage, and it gets your attention, but I had never seen such an across-the-board wholesale retail slaughter."
Corning, who was the driving force behind the Shiloh Crossing development in West Billings, believes there are several reasons for renewed optimism on the local retail scene.
"You know, some people had the best year they've ever had last year," Corning said. "It was the food retailers, the grocery retailers, the general merchandise retailers like Target, Walmart. And then other central retailers, drug stores, dollar stores for instance, those types of things did very, very well."
Plus, Corning has noticed a new trend in Billings that is helping fuel the local retail economy.
"We have seen many, many new people move into Billings and want to rent space for small businesses," said Corning. "They either have a franchise, they have an idea, or they bought a business. We've had, in the last six months, more of that than I can recall in the past several years. It's people selling a house in California with a big gain, wanting to move to an easier place to live and they've selected Billings and other cities in Montana."
Adding to Corning's optimism is the new Rocky Vista University medical school, scheduled to begin construction this summer near Shiloh and Monad in West Billings. Corning says that medical school promises to bring in a new dimension to the Magic City economy.
"I see that as a really significant development for Billings," Corning said. "The one thing we have lacked here is a higher education graduate school base that Bozeman and Missoula have. This is going to bring in a high-quality student and a lot of the associated ancillary services with it."
So in spite of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Corning believes momentum is back on the local retail scene. It comes on the heels of a year no one cares to remember.
"In our office we are definitely more optimistic than we were," said Corning. "I hope for all of our sakes, both health and economically, that we never repeat this pandemic experience again."