HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Butte, a mining town almost a century removed from its heyday, is the unlikely landing spot this week for some of the business world’s biggest names.
Google’s Eric Schmidt and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg will be joined by CEOs from companies like Ford, Boeing, Delta Airlines, FedEx, electric super car-maker Tesla, ConocoPhillips and Hewlett-Packard.
The glittering luminaries, drawn by the invitation of retiring Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, will be joined by other business leaders in an economically struggling city that was once one of the largest west of the Mississippi and dubbed “the world’s richest hill.” The Democrat readily admits his sway over tax and budget issues gets the business leaders to his home state.
Butte is about a third of its peak size today, at about 34,000 citizens. Gone is the bustle and famous red light district. Although it remains a colorful place, its aging population hasn’t kept pace with improving economies elsewhere in a state that features one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.
For at least two days this week, though, it again becomes a bustling hotbed of entrepreneurial dynamos as several thousand people are expected for the Montana Jobs Summit.
Jon Sesso, a state senator and Butte booster, said that Butte make sense in many ways. Butte, still known for its parades and festivals, always loves a party.
“In some other cities it might be perceived as, ho-hum another day at the office,” Sesso said. “We really open up the town to these kind of events. We put on the best face for Montana and the area.”
This is the sixth such gathering Baucus has orchestrated — the third in Butte. They keep getting bigger. And Montana benefits.
Last time in 2010 an audience member asked Warren Buffett — whose business empire includes BNSF Railway Company — why Montana didn’t have an inland port facility needed for big, efficient shipments. That got the ball rolling on a transportation hub being built in the northern town of Shelby — expected to create 320 jobs.
A visit from the General Electric CEO led to a deal with a manufacturing firm in Butte to make airplane parts for the large multinational. GE also opened a processing center in Billings.
Locals will be looking for more deals like those once the private jets start dropping off the bigwigs.
“Butte is always digging. We have suffered through some obstacles in terms of our economic diversity away from the mining,” Sesso said. “With any luck, we will walk away with a couple of real solid leads to create more jobs.”
Butte is quick to credit Baucus, whose third-ranking seniority and chairmanship of the committee that writes federal budgets and tax policy gives him a rolodex full of bigwigs, with orchestrating the event.
“People come in part because I ask them to come. The Finance Committee is very important to these companies,” Baucus said. “I am impressed, and flattered, with how quickly people say yes.”
Baucus said many of the businesses attending are driven by self-interest to finding new deals.
Baucus, in the Senate since the 1970s, isn’t running again and the summit full of big names could be his last. He also helped draw former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, and ambassadors from China, Japan, Peru, Canada and Germany.
Patrick Barkey, an economist who runs a research arm of the University of Montana business school, said outsiders assume that Montana is all about cows, wheat, coal and oil, and are often surprised at some of the manufacturing and high tech companies that can thrive thanks to the state’s ability to attract people who want to live among the mountains and rivers.
Still, the really big names do make quite a splash in little Butte.
“To me, it reminds me a little bit of the old Woodstock rock festival, all the headliners that went all the way out there,” Barkey said. “It is real important for Montana. As a less urban, more spread out state, we simply don’t have the networking opportunities even in our larger cities that the larger urban areas have.”
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