Bill Cole

Cole

TonySmith

Billings attorney Bill Cole, the current chair of the Billings Chamber of Commerce board of directors, will formally announce he is a candidate for mayor Thursday.

In a Wednesday news release, Cole said that “people I respect have been encouraging me to run for several months.”

He said that “Billings has never been in a better place, but good is not the same as great. We need to build a community that will attract and retain the young people who are our future. I don’t have all the answers, but I look forward to being part of the conversation.”

Cole plans a formal announcement at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in the parking lot located east of the airport roundabout. The public is invited to attend the event.

“I have never run for public office,” Cole said Wednesday afternoon. “It has been a fun and furious few hours.”

He said he’s already heard from dozens of people who are “thirsty for positive leadership that will bring Billings together.”

Cole is the third announced candidate vying to succeed Tom Hanel, who’s term limited. Billings architect Randy Hafer was the first to declare, and Rep. Jeff Essmann, the state GOP chair, announced his candidacy last week.

Thursday is the first day to file for the mayor’s race as well as the five city council seats being contested. The deadline is June 19.

While Bozeman is growing twice as fast as Billings is, Billings — by its sheer size — has more people between the ages of 20 and 40 than either Bozeman or Missoula, despite their large college campuses, Cole noted.

To successfully compete with other communities — and Cole includes cities outside Montana like Salt Lake City and Bismarck, North Dakota — Billings has to “get the fundamentals right,” he said.

That includes “keeping taxes at a reasonable level while still plowing and paving streets,” improving water and wastewater systems, building the Inner Belt Loop and investing in large, regional parks.

“Those are all givens, but they’re not enough,” he said. “We need to lay out the welcome mat to everyone, especially the young people who are our future. We need to develop a quality of life that’s second to none,” including trails, recreational facilities, theaters and restaurants “that are first class, not simply also-rans,” he said. “We need to develop well-paying 21st century jobs, especially in the tech sector, that will appeal to young people at every education level.”

The initial step to cook up “that secret sauce,” he said, “is to start the conversation and decide where we want to be in 30 years, not 30 months … We can’t expect transformational change without hard work, investment by both the public and private sectors and a local government that is willing to listen.”

Cole is the former president of the Yellowstone County Planning Board. He is spearheading efforts to develop the Yellowstone Kelly Interpretive Site in Swords Rimrock Park on behalf of the chamber.

An attorney in private practice, Cole previously was president of the Alberta Bair Theater board of directors and president of the Yellowstone Area Bar Association. He’s on the board of directors of Faith Evangelical Church.

He is a 1982 graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, and earned his law degree from the Columbia University Law School in New York City in 1987.

He is married to Anne Cole, a professor in developmental education at Montana State University Billings. The couple has two daughters.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.