Tom West

Tom West of Thomas P. Miller and Associates speaks to a large crowd during a presentation initiated by the Downtown Billings Alliance of Billings' new strategic 20 year plan at the Historic Billings Depot on Wednesday, October 25.

BRONTE WITTPENN, Gazette staff

Seated at tables of eight Wednesday evening in the Historic Billings Depot and given both good food and helpful direction, about 150 residents envisioned the downtown Billings they’d like to see.

If the group has its way, that future will feature:

  • Rooftop terrace dining.
  • A trolley or light rail.
  • A variety of housing options.
  • More green space and lighting.
  • Fewer one-way streets.
  • Greater inclusion of Native Americans, including flying tribal flags in public places.

With the help of consultant Thomas P. Miller & Associates of Indianapolis, the Downtown Billings Alliance is crafting a new strategic plan 20 years after its initial plan, the Downtown Billings Framework.

In that span, DBA executive director Lisa Harmon said, nearly 300 downtown tax increment financing projects worth nearly $300 million have been completed.

“Let’s roll up our sleeves,” Harmon suggested to the enthusiastic crowd, “and talk graciously about what we want and what we don’t want.”

Tom West and others from Thomas P. Miller & Associates led the process, promising the group “a fun exercise.”

He began by displaying 20 images depicting urban scenes from around the world: Al fresco dining, public art, bicycle and pedestrian lanes, a street lined with fast food restaurants, and a Native American mural painted on a brick building, among others. Participants were asked what they liked and didn’t like about each image, and some shared why.

“I just didn’t like it,” one participant said of a large piece of public art.

“What are you — an art-hater?” West joked.

Next, each table was given one of eight topics — downtown living, nightlife, entertainment and dining, Native American inclusion, parking and transportation, pedestrian and bike facilities, parks and plazas, and clean and safe spaces. Each table was asked to come up with two or three ideas to enhance their topic, then to share their best idea with the group.

Ideas varied wildly:

  • One group decided parking garage floors should be color-coded so that people could easily recall where they parked. Businesses could adopt a garage and brand it with artwork.
  • Another decided more winter festivals and multi-generational activities would attract people downtown during the slower season.
  • More bike and pedestrian lanes would allow for more window shopping. West noted people can’t shop from inside their car — provided the windows are rolled up.
  • Diverting ditch water downtown, one group decided, would give the downtown a new water feature. “We think big,” that table decided, “and we don’t think about the cost.”
  • Food trucks serving downtowners late at night — say, after the bars closed — would add to the downtown’s vibrancy, one group said.

Earlier Wednesday and continuing Thursday, the consultants met with focus groups as they work to help write the new plan. Those groups included people interested in multimodal streets, art and culture, Native American heritage and services, economic development, and emerging leaders.

“This is an exciting time of change and transition,” Harmon said, as she and DBA's development director, Greg Kruger, will soon be retiring. “But even after attending more than 250 city council meetings, I still believe our hope is in this thing we call the city, the single greatest invention ever.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.