Within walking distance: Billings' demographics conducive to mixed-use development

2014-06-25T17:00:00Z 2014-06-26T07:04:38Z Within walking distance: Billings' demographics conducive to mixed-use developmentBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

An increasing number of shoppers in cities in the Rocky Mountain West prefer to live within walking or biking distance of the stores they frequent and the cultural and entertainment destinations they love.

Big, growing and relatively affluent cities like Billings are well positioned to foster that kind of mixed-use development. That’s according to the report “Restore,” released Wednesday by Community Builders, a project of the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute.

In Billings, the web-based presentation was hosted by the Billings Planning and Community Services Department.

Report writers studied successful mixed-use development cities in four states: Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Colorado.

“People are looking for a sense of place, and they’re drawn to core areas like downtown,” said Jillian Sutherland of the Sonoran Institute, who presented the report. “People will trade for those qualities, such as smaller houses on smaller lots, in order to be close to amenities.”

Two large demographic groups — Baby Boomers, born 1946 through 1964, and Generation Y, born 1980-94 — are most likely to choose a mixed-use neighborhood, Sutherland said. Most people 18-35 say they “still enjoy shopping and view it as an entertaining and social experience,” Sutherland said.

But the emphasis should be on fun while making purchases. One hot trend in retail, she said, is hybrid shopping: the coffee shop that also offers bicycle rentals, or the wine bar that sells a few book titles. “They are looking for that entertaining experience,” she said.

Billings and a few other cities in the region, including

Bozeman and two Wyoming communities, Cheyenne and Casper, are good candidates for more mixed-use development because of their demographics. Comparatively, they’re younger, growing cities with higher-than-median education and income levels.

Those Tier A cities, as the report calls them, are ripe for both vertical and horizontal mixed-use development, Main Street-style commercial development as well as historic urban development and lifestyle centers — developments with an “open-air market type of feel and maybe a residential component,” Sutherland said.

The webinar also featured Nick Kujawa with Kujawa Development LLC of Butte, the company that redeveloped Butte’s long-vacant

Sears Building into a facility with 34 residential units, a grocery store

on the ground floor and an experimental science museum in the basement.

While Kujawa had to tap seven funding sources to help complete the project, the residential development now features a 1 percent vacancy rate, “and that’s phenomenal. Our core tenants are Boomers and Generation Y, who get off the elevator and are right in the grocery store,” Kujawa said.

“Residents need to eat, so food and beverage makes sense for a mixed-use development.”

The most important improvement cities can make to encourage mixed-use development is to beef up infrastructure, Kujawa said, including attractive sidewalks, good striping for crosswalks and quality — and maybe period — lighting.

“Why would I spend $10 million on a building,” he said, “if the city doesn’t care about streets and sidewalks?”

After the meeting, Patty Nordlund, director of operations for the Billings Industrial Revitalization District, said most of what she heard during the presentation “meshes with what’s in our master plan” and the recently-completed Exposition Gateway Master Plan that relies on infrastructure improvements to help develop a hospitality corridor near MetraPark.

“The financing of mixed-use development — that’s the key,” she said.

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

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