Billings Mayor Bill Cole condemned Monday what he called racist and anti-gay vandalism after swastikas and other graffiti were found recently at Grace United Methodist Church, Lewis & Clark Middle School, Senior High School and Pioneer Park.
The crimes “are not a prank or a minor infraction that can be tolerated,” Cole said at the outset of Monday’s city council work session. “Swastikas and hate speech are intended to intimidate and imply a threat of physical violence.”
“Words aren’t enough,” the mayor said, adding that members of the LGBTQ community and others “who feel threatened by these crimes deserve to know what the city is doing to prevent similar crimes in the future.”
Council members said they received a number of phone calls and letters from people concerned about the crimes.
Police Chief Rich St. John told the council police have “several leads,” which detectives are following up. School resource officers, the city’s parks officer and the department’s street crimes unit are “working to provide proactive and reactive investigations, doing area checks and security stops” on nights when there are gatherings at the church.
Police are partnering with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security, and although the crimes probably don’t rise to the level of federal prosecution, “the partnership does give us reach,” St. John said.
Montana has no hate crime statute, but if a court determines the vandal committed the crime motivated by bias or discrimination, “that is a sentence enhancement,” St. John said.
One Big Sky update
Billings Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development and Downtown Billings Partnership representatives updated the council on next steps as Landmark LLC, which has the same principals as Hammes Company of Madison, Wisconsin, continues to study the feasibility of what could be $1.7 billion in mostly private investment downtown in years to come.
Formerly under MontDevCo, which remains as a development partner, the proposal was for One Big Sky Center, a cluster of downtown buildings including a convention center. The present proposal is more a plan for economic development and includes two districts – a health and wellness district, defined as “the medical campus of the future,” and a lifestyle district, which will include a convention center and mixed-use, multi-anchor development.
The developer expects to spend at least $1.1 million to study the project’s feasibility as well as perform a number of studies in the coming months.
The proposed term sheet calls for local partners, including the city, to spend $675,000 over the next year. An accounting of who will bear which portion of those costs will be presented to the council in time for its Feb. 20 work session.
Later this month or early in March, representatives from either Rochester, Minnesota or Allentown, Pennsylvania – perhaps both – will be in Billings to discuss how similar levels of development occurred in their cities with Hammes Company’s help.
An update on a 2015 study on Billings’ meeting and convention center facilities – including the amount of convention business that’s being lost based on the current state of Billings facilities – will be ready in April, said John Brewer, president and CEO of the Billings Chamber of Commerce.
Radisson Hotel & Convention Center
Inner Circle Investments, which had expressed interest in modernizing the Montana Convention Center, is stepping back from those plans for now, according to Steve Zeier of the South Billings Urban Renewal District.
The company told the district’s board that it wishes to wait until a decision is made on the One Big Sky project, Zeier told the council.
“Their main issue is the lack of support from other community partners. That’s not a knock on other organizations, which have focused on One Big Sky,” Zeier said. “The Radisson is a significant project, but it’s smaller in scale.”
He said Inner Circle Investments is considering smaller improvements at the South Billings convention center, such as the parking lot.
“They’re not going anywhere,” Zeier said of the company. “They’re taking a step back, not a step out.”