Downtown Billings Alliance seeks suggestions on next projects

2014-08-27T17:00:00Z 2014-09-08T08:54:03Z Downtown Billings Alliance seeks suggestions on next projectsBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Calling himself “real big on benchmarks,” Greg Krueger of the Downtown Billings Alliance is looking for some suggestions to guide where the organization he serves hopes to go over the next decade.

Krueger is conducting an online redevelopment survey that seeks public input on two fronts: Prioritizing how to make the city center a “vibrant, clean, safe and sustainable place,” and gauging interest in a number of projects, including developing a downtown conference center, creating a downtown public shuttle system and building bicycle lanes throughout the Central Business District.

The survey, available at www.downtownbillings.com/redevelopment-survey, touches on “a lot of stuff we will implement in the next five to 10 years,” said Krueger, the organization’s development director. “We want to see what people’s opinions are and what their ideas are.”

One question asks respondents to rank from one to 10 a list of possible downtown priorities, including discouraging panhandling, building more pocket parks, enhancing pedestrian areas, providing more public restrooms, assisting private development, adding more retail stores, growing cultural venues, adding public parking garages and making railroad crossing improvements.

The next question measures, from one to five, the respondent’s interest in a half-dozen projects, including the Downtown Revolving Loan Fund, tax increment incentives and the conversion of one-way streets to two-way streets.

So far, parking is on people’s minds, and Krueger said he’s glad to see it.

“We have plenty of parking. It’s just not well-managed, and that’s no knock against the city,” he said. “With the Empire Parking Garage opening, there are more parking spaces downtown than ever, but managing them is a challenge. It’s more perception than reality.”

City officials are embarking on a downtown parking strategy and held public meetings last month with a panel of parking experts from cities across the West, including Boise, Idaho and Eugene, Ore.

Krueger said he recently visited Billings’ Park I. The average taken from about a dozen visits to two different floors there indicated 128 empty spaces in the garage.

“We are keen on wanting parking to be successful,” he said. “I don’t want to build any more parking garages, but I’ve got to show people we don’t need them, or we’ll have to go ahead and build them.”

At least one survey result surprises Krueger. As of Wednesday afternoon, with about 60 people completing the survey, developing programs that discourage panhandling and vagrancy came in last out of 10 possible priorities listed.

“There has been a lot of negative press lately, and I thought it would be an issue that’s on everyone’s mind, but obviously it’s not,” he said. “That tells me that people are comfortable with their safety downtown.”

Parking ranks as the most important concern to date, while the railroad crossing question is second and the availability of public restrooms downtown is third, Krueger said.

Krueger said providing downtown restrooms is complicated by the type of construction that’s needed.

“They have to be almost prison quality,” he said. Members of the organization’s Purple People, or street-cleaning team, clean up human feces from downtown nearly every morning, he said.

He expressed mild surprise that the railroad crossing concern is as high as it is.

“People are frustrated right now about getting across the tracks, but there’s a lot of misinformation about how many trains come through, and how many trains might come through (Billings),” Krueger said. “The inconvenience to traffic is considerable in Billings, but it’s nothing like how long I used to wait just to get on the freeway in Seattle.”

The question will be, “Do we throw millions at the problem, or do we retrain drivers,” he said. “We are working on that, but we wish (that ranking) would have been lower.”

The Downtown Billings Alliance “has pushed hard for more downtown retail, and right now that’s third from the bottom,” Krueger noted. He said the downtown shopping district can be thought of as a retail hub just as King Avenue or Shiloh Crossing are shopping districts, “but it’s different, with boutiques” and businesses that can cater to higher-end customers, he said.

With more people living downtown, the proximity to needed providers — including drugstores — becomes more and more important, Krueger said, and he said he believes the survey will confirm that.

“Albertsons is an easy walk from SkyPoint, and there’s a CVS by Dehler Park, but people want their drugstore on the corner,” he said. “This survey will help us reprioritize what we do.”

Krueger said he expects the survey to be available into next week and he welcomes a large number of people taking the few minutes required to complete it.

“I do want to hear what the people of Billings have to say,” he said.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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