Economic Developer, Community Builder
Technically, Allison Corbyn’s job is to spark economic development by recruiting new businesses to settle in Billings and Yellowstone County, or by helping existing businesses expand. But she has a bigger goal in mind.
“I really like the process of building a good community,” she says. “When you’re talking about recruitment, you’re talking about creating high-paying jobs, about supporting the community.”
Allison, 35, came to Billings from her home state of Colorado to attend Rocky Mountain College, from which she graduated with a degree in political science in 2010. Her first job out of college was doing fundraising and outreach for the Yellowstone AIDS Project.
Less than a year into that position, she took her father’s advice and offered to be an unpaid intern for Big Sky Economic Development, a public-private organization tasked with expanding the local economy. She did so because BSED had a program she was interested in learning more about — redeveloping abandoned or underused industrial and commercial sites where redevelopment is complicated by environmental contamination.
She continued working for the AIDS Project and as an unpaid intern for another year before being hired full-time by BSED in 2013, as project lead on business recruitment. She says her degree was a form of preparation for her new job, because political science is all about building a better world, as is economic development.
Her studies also helped her to think critically, to research and to write, while reading the works of thinkers of varied ideologies taught her the value of understanding other people’s perspectives. Maybe that helped develop what Steve Arveschoug, BSED executive director, describes as one of her key skills.
“Where I think she has brilliant talent is her ability to instantly connect with almost anybody,” Steve says, “and make them feel comfortable about their relationship … to make them want to do business with us. That’s a rare gift.”
Allison was eventually promoted to director of new business recruitment, and she now also directs outreach and economic development policy of BSED. She has played a key role in bringing some huge projects to Yellowstone County, including Rocky Vista University, ROI Call Center Solutions and Meadowlark Brewing. She has become BSED’s lead person on efforts to expand air service to Billings, and in her policy role she co-chairs the legislative committee of the Montana Economic Developers Association.
One of her biggest lifts was helping pave the way for a new Coca-Cola bottling plant and distribution warehouse in the Harnish Trade Center south of I-90 near the Zoo Drive exit. The $40 million project will create 50 new jobs, in addition to the 60 warehouse jobs that will move from the company’s current distribution center in south Billings.
Arveschoug says he had an opening conversation with the company about the project before Allison took over. “After my initial conversation — this is Allison’s style — she came into my office and said, ‘Steve, I got this.’ She was kindly saying, ‘Get out of my way.’ She really wanted to take it from start to finish.”
Joe Easton worked on the project for years with Allison. Joe was director of developer services and planning for Jackson Contractor Group in Missoula in 2017 when Coca-Cola Bottling Co. High Country was looking to build a new distribution warehouse in Missoula.
Joe’s job was to scout projects that might turn into construction contracts, and soon the CEO of High Country mentioned that the company was also interested in a new warehouse in Billings. Joe met Allison in 2019, when he began quietly coming to Billings to look for land to site the warehouse, while also investigating the costs and benefits of such a move.
By 2021, Joe had gone to work full-time for High Country, still concentrating on the Billings project, which had expanded by then to include a bottling plant, but also working on similar projects around the region. The Billings project was one of the most complicated he’d worked on in a career of nearly 25 years.
The main problem was that Coca-Cola needed a lot of water, but city water and sewer mains stopped nearly a mile east of the Harnish site. Thus began a long, complex process of extending those utilities to the site, getting the land annexed into the city and obtaining property tax abatements from the city and county.
High Country had been in the community for more than 100 years and had plenty of credibility, Joe says, “but this kind of project was new, and we needed Big Sky ED, and Allison in particular, to help.”
And help she did. “She knows everybody,” Joe says. “And it’s not a small thing that people will take her call, answer a text. And if she says, ‘I need to keep this quiet for right now,’ people respect that. I was careful not to ask too much of her, but she was very, very helpful.”
Allison described her role as becoming “an advocate for the business, while having to maintain a relationship with the city and all of your other partners. So, it’s like pushing in a respectful way, then pushing back the other way, just to make sure you’re navigating a collaborative solution.”
The Coca-Cola project was big in another way. Joe says those water and sewer lines mean that hundreds of acres of other vacant land around the site will be much cheaper and easier to develop in the future. Coco-Cola, meanwhile, hopes to be fully moved into the new facility by January 2024.
Allison likes the way Billings is growing, economically and culturally. “It’s interesting to see how far Billings has come since I started college in 2006,” she says. “It’s grown, it’s cooler. Its coolness factor has been trending up.”
To help Billings grow, Allison stays busy. Besides her work in town, she frequently travels to meet with various airlines’ flight planners. In years like this one, when the Montana Legislature is in session, she often drives to Helena to meet with statewide economic development people and to testify before the Legislature.
When Allison heard Meadowlark Brewing was thinking of expanding into Billings, she and a BSED colleague hopped on a prop plane to meet in Sidney with owner Travis Peterson. Allison ended up working closely with Travis, helping him get a job-creation grant through BSED and a planning grant through the state Department of Commerce, as well as helping the company obtain private financing for the big expansion.
It can be overwhelming. Allison and her husband, Chris Round, have two children, ages 8 and 5, and she’s thankful for help from Chris’ parents and sister, who live in town, and for her parents, who come up from Colorado when needed. She also has good friends in her support network. “I don’t know what you do if you don’t have that,” she says.
Allison has learned to live with see-saw emotions. When things are going really well at work, she feels like she’s not being a good mom, and when things are going well at home, she feels she’s not giving work her all. She tries to keep things in perspective.
“This job is something I love, building community,” she says. “So, I tell myself that even though you don’t spend all your time with your kids, you’re working to make a better Billings, or a better Montana, in a way that will mean something to them.”