Our nation is divided by partisanship and social discord. As I write this, the murderous mayhem that shocked Charlottesville, Virginia, is fresh in everyone’s memory. By contrast, there are few things more powerful than a city united. Billings, blessed by community-mindedness and a can-do attitude, has never had a brighter future.
The challenges we do have can be overcome if we avoid division and work together. For example, our economy depends on our ability to fill roughly 32,500 job openings in the next 10 years, a difficult task given that Montana’s population is the sixth oldest in the United States. The drug epidemic ravaging our country has found its way to our city, and we have too few police officers on the street. Billings has not purchased any parkland for more than 50 years or developed a large, general use park since 1982, when our population was 66,000 versus 112,000 today. For decades we have talked about, but not done much, to develop the untapped potential of what should be our community’s trademarks — the Yellowstone River and iconic Rimrocks. Finally, our I-90 corridor and entryways are, well, unattractive — to put it politely. Aesthetics matter.
We need to address these problems head-on rather than just kick them down the road. As an attorney, small businessman, and former chair of the Billings Chamber of Commerce and City-County Planning Board, I know we are in constant competition with other cities for young talent, business investment, tourism dollars, airline service, you name it. We are in a race, and time is of the essence.
It is especially important that we improve our ability to retain and attract the nomadic 20- to 40-year-olds who will fill all those jobs, build our tax base, and take care of the rest of us as we get older. To do so, Billings needs to offer an exciting quality of life, neighborliness that welcomes diversity, and a nationally-known brand identity that makes our children want to stay here and young adults in Denver, Seattle and Bozeman want to move here. Filling potholes and building new roads won’t do it. Although important, those don’t translate into compelling news stories or alluring pictures when a young doctor in Des Moines or a software engineer in San Francisco types “do I want to live in Billings, MT” into Google. For that we need a youthful, urban vibe; exciting downtown nightlife; landscaped trails along the Rims; and an outdoor amphitheater in Coulson Park next to the river.
To build that Billings, we need consensus-based leadership that inspires the whole community to dream big and think out of the box. Just imagine if we could convince local legislators to let Billings voters decide for themselves whether they want a modest sales tax on alcohol, prepared foods, and other luxury goods that each year would generate millions of dollars for these projects — paid in part by nonresidents who now use our city services without charge — and provide property tax relief for Billings residents. It also means supporting One Big Sky Center and finding innovative ways to improve the appearance of the I-90 corridor, perhaps by creating a business improvement district for the area, tapping tax increment funds where available, or creating an I-90 overlay zoning district that would grandfather existing development but require landscaping and other visual barriers for new construction.
Fear of failure can prevent risk-averse individuals — and communities — from investing for the future. That’s a mistake. Read the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14). Let’s invest in the future together and reap the rewards.