Billings Gazette: Montana leaders seeking meeting with GE to save Billings operation

Montana’s congressional delegation and Gov. Steve Bullock are seeking a meeting with officials at GE Capital this month to urge the company to keep its Billings facility.

Bullock and fellow Democrat Sen. Jon Tester, and two Republicans, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Ryan Zinke, jointly sent a letter released Wednesday to Jeffery Bornstein, chief financial officer for parent company General Electric, requesting a meeting in Washington, D.C.

The push is in response to the October announcement that Connecticut-based GE is selling its commercial lending and leasing businesses, including the Billings facility, to Wells Fargo for $30 billion. The sale was part of GE’s overall strategy to pare down its business to core manufacturing.

Since the announcement of the sale, officials with Big Sky Economic Development and others have been trying to convince GE to hold onto the Billings operation, known as the GE Montana Center of Excellence, and its 170 jobs.

“We strongly believe that the workforce GE assembled in Montana can continue to be a great asset, and we would appreciate an update on job retention strategies,” the letter states.

Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks said the senator expects to schedule the meeting within the next week. Tester and Bullock discussed the same issue with GE’s CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, last year, she added.

According to the letter, the GE center brings $95 million to the Billings area, which includes direct payroll, spinoff jobs and operating expenses.

Steve Arveschoug, president of Big Sky Economic Development, said the letter was sent in December, and he presented it to the agency’s board Wednesday.

“We’re trying to convey how important this is to the state of Montana, our partnership with GE. I’m hoping in 2016 we’re going to get it all resolved,” Arveschoug said.

Big Sky owns the $9.3 million, 40,000-square-foot building, which the agency developed specifically to lease to GE in 2009. Whether it stays or not, GE is obligated to continue making lease payments on the building through 2021.

The company also received at least $1.75 million in mostly public dollars to expand in Billings. This includes a $50,000 annual operating incentive for 10 years from Big Sky, a $758,000 federal Economic Development Administration grant for infrastructure and property tax abatements from Yellowstone County and the city of Billings worth $550,000 over 10 years.

The Billings center handles a diverse set of financial services. For example, employees can finance commercial truck purchases and help buyers get licensed in all 50 states, and they also manage paperwork related to property taxes, insurance and title work.

The sale to Wells Fargo is expected to close before the end of March.