A crowd of nearly 150 people turned out to the Alberta Bair Theater Tuesday to listen to 10 of the 12 remaining Billings City Council and mayoral candidates share their thoughts on where the community might be headed.
Ward 2 candidate Frank Ewalt and Ward 3 candidate Nadja Brown did not participate. The Billings Chamber of Commerce and Billings Cultural Partners sponsored the forum, moderated by former Mayor Chuck Tooley.
Bill Cole said he’s running because Billings is a little like the theater seats people were sitting on — a little tattered with some missing velour. Billings needs to concentrate on attracting the 30,000 new workers needed in the coming decade, he said.
Jeff Essmann said his leadership will focus on workforce training needs. He said he doesn’t believe in raising taxes — “just fiscally responsible government.”
Both said they see a role for local government supporting culture and the arts, although when asked what they think is the most important local pillar — government, education, business or culture — Essmann chose business, “because without economic activity, there’s no money for government, education or cultural programs.” Cole opted for culture, which he said includes the individual and the family dynamic.
“I have a knack for getting things done,” Essmann said during his closing, adding he wants local government to “be strategic, set priorities and move ahead with good planning and good leadership.”
Cole said that “the competition for young talent will drive us. We can’t achieve that by doing more of what we have done in the past.”
Challenger Charlie Smillie said the city “needs leadership that will stand up for funding for public safety and more principled leadership, ensuring equality for all residents.”
Incumbent Mike Yakawich said if he’s re-elected, his “three-legged stool” will be neighborhood safety, infrastructure and urban parks and trails.
Asked what they’d like to know more about regarding the One Big Sky Center proposal, Yakawich said he hopes the project will “have an amazing impact in revitalizing downtown, and that everyone will benefit from it.”
Smillie said the project “has the potential to be transformational” and said he wants to learn more about “how this project will reflect our need to transition to energy efficiency and renewable energy.”
Ewalt’s absence left Roger Gravgaard to talk about issues he sees as important — public safety, the city’s trail system, “taking the pressure of Main Street” by constructing the Inner Belt Loop and managed growth.
On the notion of forming an arts commission to advise the council, Gravgaard joked that he’s no arts expert, admitting “I’m probably one step up from dogs playing cards on velvet. I would need some advising if I were on the council.”
Denise Joy, the only Ward 3 finalist present, said while West End growth often grabs the headlines, “we also have to pay attention to our established neighborhoods.”
Rather than ignoring the recommendations of the city’s 28 boards and commissions, the council “should listen to them and honor their work. Those boards work hard.”
For her, education is the most important pillar. “It starts with parents and the example they set,” she said. “Critical thinking starts at home, too.”
Running to succeed Al Swanson, George Blackard and Penny Ronning each credited the other for running a respectful campaign. Ronning said she doesn’t view Blackard as her opponent, calling him instead “my ballot mate.”
“Life has no meaning without service to others,” Blackard said. Ronning said she hopes the community is “as concerned about the safety of our kids as we are about public safety and plowing streets.”
Noting this spring's unsuccessful pitch that Artspace supporters made for tax increment financing help, Ronning said that leadership “needs to acknowledge arts as a valid business, not just a bunch of beatniks.” Blackard noted the council more-recently approved TIF support for updates to the Alberta Bair Theater. “It’s a city-owned building and we should support this,” he said.
On the One Big Sky Center proposal, Blackard said taxpayers “should not be paying for this.” Ronning said she’d like to learn more about what the developers see in Billings.
Challenger Dennis Ulvestad is taking on incumbent Shaun Brown. Brown said he moved to Billings 37 years ago as someone who’d dropped out of school, “but worked hard to find opportunities.” Ulvestad said when he drew "2" as his Selective Service number, “I knew I was going to Vietnam.” As someone who’s worked on neighborhood task forces and city boards, Ulvestad urged the crowd to get more involved in local government. “It’s interesting and it’s great,” he said.
Brown said what motivated him as a young man — “a job that could identify who I am” — isn’t as important to millennials. “Nowadays it’s more about the community and the opportunities open to people, including the arts and fine dining,” he said.
“Get engaged, and talk about what we do have,” Ulvestad said, naming the Babcock and Alberta Bair as well as the Depot and Yellowstone Art Museum. “Those are all important parts of a cultural city.”
Ulvestad said hiring additional police officers will require changing the city charter to boost the number of mills that the council can levy. “If we want to hire more officers,” Brown responded, “we gotta make more money. People continually rate that high on their list.”
Voters will make their selections on the Nov. 7 ballot.