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Is Butte, Montana, the Davos of the Rockies?

Sitting squarely on the Continental Divide, the mining town of Butte routinely hosts a fair piece of the world's movers and shakers as it works to shift its gaze from one boom to another.
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Logo for the Montana Jobs Summit. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE MONTANA JOBS SUMMIT)

Logo for the Montana Jobs Summit. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE MONTANA JOBS SUMMIT)

There are times when an event transcends itself, its very existence creating a sort of socio/political gestalt. Butte, Montana, was home to the phenomena this week when the leaders of 10 of the United States' most prominent companies and ambassadors from several other countries joined Senator Max Baucus and a teeming mass of Montanans for an unlikely economic summit.

First, the players: Eric Schmidt of Google, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, Meg Whitman of HP, Safra Catz of Oracle, and the CEOs of Ford Motor Co., Boeing, Delta Airlines and FedEx; ambassadors from China, Germany, Japan, Peru, and Canada; Baucus, known better nationally for his role in the sausage making of the Affordable Care Act; and thousands of attendees—anyone who registered in advance. A Bloomberg reporter supposedly referred to the summit in jest as “the new Davos.”

The two-day Montana Jobs Summit was free to the public. The list of donors—nearly 100 sponsors are listed, including a significant percentage of the Fortune 500—include American Express, Merck, ExxonMobil, Walmart.

So, here we are in Butte, a 140-year-old mining town spread over a steep hill that itself contains smaller hills. Aging brownstones march down streets dotted with gallows mining frames. The frames have been standing unused since 1955, when the underground mines they served were abandoned in lieu of an open copper pit that eventually ate a significant part of Butte’s uptown. The city’s population at the turn of the 20th century was about 100,000, when that hill was sometimes called “the richest hill on Earth.” So many ethnic groups came to Butte for work the town was dubbed Butte, America. Today, Butte’s population is about 34,000.

Montana’s per capita income in 2010 was $23,836, placing it in 38th place nationally. For several years in the 1990s, it was among the lowest, prompting some people to refer to their state as the Best Last Place rather than the better-known Last Best Place.

The summit, the sixth Baucus has held over his nearly 36 years in the Senate, is held at Montana Tech, a mining and engineering school of about 2,800 students perched on a top of one of the hills upon a hill. To the west is a sweeping view of Montana scrubland and mountains, to the east, Butte, under the spiny ridge of the Continental Divide.

Why do these ambassadors and captains of industry come to this aging mining town to talk to people in a state of barely a million souls? A couple of answers, prominent among them Baucus’ chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee and his diligent relationship-building with companies he believes can benefit his state. He introduces each of the speakers—clearly delighted with both the audience and his guests—as if offering the person as a shiny new present for his constituents.

Inside the gymnasium-turned-conference-hall 2,500 seats are full and people are packing in the aisles in anticipation of Elon Musk’s talk. There are plenty of men in shiny black suits but also a panel moderator wearing a retro short-sleeve shirt featuring national park postcards. A few women’s feet reveal tan lines of river shoes visible in more formal footwear.

Air conditioning in the not-too-new complex can’t keep up with the body heat and some people are using their programs as fans; the presence of 10 portable toilets outside also suggests the venue is testing its limits. A lot of chatting is going on. Montana has a small population and great distances; it’s fairly common to run into a friend on a street when visiting a city or town 200 miles from your home and, as anyone who visits the state will tell you, Montanans are friendly. Most of the people in the hall have met Baucus in person at least once; at this event he’s referred to as either Max or The Senator.

Musk begins his remarks by telling of how he and his five sons had just visited SeaCast, a Butte company that produces titanium parts for his travel-to-Mars venture. The Musks came to see the pouring of steel and titanium; they also came to ride horses and float rivers. As Musk tells the stories of the risks he has taken with both SpaceX and his electric car company, Tesla, you can sense a collective intake and holding of air. More than once he took all he had and put it on the line. In Montana parlance, he bet the farm. When a local reporter later asks Musk why he didn’t bet more of his farm in Montana, he answers that Montana is about 0.3 percent of the U.S. population and he’s pretty sure what his company spends at SeaCast is more than 0.3 percent of SpaceX’s budget.

When Max talks with Sheryl Sandberg he tells her she should run for “Senate or president,” then remembers California has two entrenched and competent female senators from his own party and quickly backs away from the remark. Sandberg graciously declines the suggestion, noting she’s currently doing “all the leaning in I can do.”

Taking a break, summit moderator and State Senator Jon Sesso tells attendees to “go out and network—create some jobs.” The crowd—it’s about 55 percent male—is a mix of start-up entrepreneurs, educators, business people, journalists, government and university representatives, researchers, and analysts. No doubt some are looking for jobs.

Montana’s per capita income in 2010 was $23,836, placing it in 38th place nationally. For several years in the 1990s, it was among the lowest, prompting some people to refer to their state as the Best Last Place rather than the better-known Last Best Place. These economics summits, held regularly for the better part of two decades, no doubt have contributed to the state slowly pulling itself up economically. And several start-ups featured at the summit attest to a nascent bootstrapping.

What’s different in 2013 compared with the 2010 summit and its energy focus is an emphasis on innovation in IT. Big data, cyber security, cloud sourcing, and social media are buzzwords this year, echoes of another boom in a town that was founded on one.

In the main hall, Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, begins his comments by saying he loves everything about Montana, so much so he now has two houses in the state. (Many celebrities and billionaires own homes or ranches in Montana, but owning two gives Schmidt a leg up.) Then he waxes eloquent about how he sees the “knowledge economy being replaced by a caring, creative economy” that reduces strain on workers and families. Asked by an engineer attendee what steps to take in his career, Schmidt says, “develop a powerful Android app.”

The next morning’s sessions are less full with attendees more likely to be surfing their smartphones, ironically staring at their screens while Oracle’s Safra Catz stands in front of them talking about cloud servicing. Oracle acquired a Bozeman company two years ago after learning about it at an earlier summit. Today Catz announces the company plans to make Bozeman, about 100 miles east of Butte, its “global cloud center.” A flurry of press releases surface during the day announcing other new jobs and initiatives.

We're on the summit's last lap now—just two three-hour “Get Your Business Online” sessions sponsored by Google left. The 100 people at the first session—the trend is older here, with several grey heads in the group—are greeted by twentysomething Google employees and seated at laptops. Before they leave the room, they’ll have a Web presence if the Google kids have anything to say about it.

A session leader notes that only 58 percent of the nation’s businesses are online. This clearly is not acceptable. All participants in these sessions will receive a free domain and hosting for a year.

A Baucus staffer drops in and reports that the total number of summit attendees topped out at nearly 4,000 and there were about one million social media hits, adding a bit ruefully, “not that I know that much about social media.” The Google kids smile patiently. It’s a big world to connect, but they know it can be done.