It turns out that the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse in downtown Billings is not just a toxic eyesore.

It is also an emblem of the mess this country is in, and a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I wrote last week about the ugly new federal building that is under construction half a block from the ugly, asbestos-ridden old federal building, the Battin, which it will replace. I soon heard from Alex Gregory, co-owner of Oxford Antiques on Montana Avenue.

A few days before that column was printed, she and her husband, Mike, found a 50-year-old clipping from the U.S. News & World Report among some other Billings artifacts they bought at an estate sale.

The article is headlined “How a city got a building it didn’t ask for,” and it begins: “If you want to know why federal spending grows and grows and grows, you can find the answer in this pleasant Western city of 50,000.”

The article, dated Nov. 12, 1962, tells how the General Services Administration had announced in 1959 that it intended to construct a new federal building in Billings.

An offer they couldn’t refuse

At first, city officials and the Billings Chamber of Commerce didn’t want it. There was plenty of vacant office space in Billings, they said, and the federal agencies located in Billings were already “well housed.”

The GSA then announced that it would give the federal building to another Western city — and it might just move some federal agencies out of Billings. In other words: Take our money, or else.

The chamber quickly changed its tune and officially endorsed the project, though others continued to insist it was a waste of money. The U.S. House Appropriations Committee agreed with the opponents and in 1962 refused to provide money for the project. The committee said the building was unneeded, and the $6.5 million cost was so high “as to raise serious questions of its economic soundness.”

The ranks of project supporters was soon swelled by downtown businessmen, for whom the prospect of federal stimulus money, once dangled in front of them, became not merely desirable but seemingly imperative. Their eagerness was fortified by a recent downturn in the economy, thanks to a fading oil boom.

They pressured the state’s Democratic senators, Mike Mansfield and Lee Metcalf, and Republican Rep. James F. Battin, who represented the eastern half of the state. They swung into action. Eventually, the Senate restored the appropriation, the House concurred and President Kennedy signed the bill that included the Billings project. (And in 1999, the building was renamed in Battin’s honor.)

‘A troubled conscience’

The outcome, according to the magazine, “left Billings with a troubled conscience.” One contractor called it “a damned outrage.” An unnamed banker struck a contemporary note when he lamented having been pressured into accepting the building lest some other town land the project.

“The ultimate result, I suppose, is socialism,” he said.

A mocking Gov. Tim Babcock said there were “two enthusiastic bursts of applause” at a recent Billings chamber meeting — once when the group passed a resolution decrying federal spending and the other when it was announced that money had been appropriated for the Billings federal building.

And so it goes. Almost 50 years later, when the government announced plans to abandon the Battin building, it said it would hire a private developer to build a $35 million courthouse, which the government would then rent and pay taxes on.

That was the plan as late as March 2009. But then, in April of that year, when federal stimulus money was being thrown around, the government suddenly decided to build its own courthouse — using $80 million in stimulus funds. Current estimates are that it will cost $60 million.

Remember how the House committee decided $6.5 million for the original courthouse seemed outrageously expensive? In today’s dollars, that would be roughly $49 million. The new $60 million courthouse will be somewhat smaller than the Battin, which is partly why a developer is constructing another building on Fourth Avenue North, this one costing $30 million, which will be leased to the feds.

Where will it all end? I don’t know, but in that 1962 article, then-Mayor Harold Gerke said the surplus of office space in Billings probably wouldn’t last long.

“You know as well as I do that these Government agencies don’t get any smaller,” he said.

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