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Downtown Billings skyline

Downtown Billings skyline

The Downtown Billings Alliance's strategic plan is aimed at dreaming big — from building a Native American cultural center to courting passenger train travel to the heart of Billings.

DBA rolled out its plan, titled “Dream Big, Downtown Billings,” Tuesday before a crowd of about 60 people at the Billings Public Library. It will be available on the DBA website Wednesday.

It suggests modeling the inclusion of diverse cultures downtown, including consideration of building an American Indian cultural center downtown.

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DBA strategic plan

Mike Handley, left, talks with assistant economic development director Dustin Lester of Thomas P. Miller & Associates after Lester presented a new strategic plan for the Downtown Billings Alliance at the Billings Public Library on Tuesday.

It also encourages local leaders to convince Congress and Amtrak to alter the Empire Builder route connecting the Pacific Northwest with Chicago to include major Montana cities, including Billings.

It calls on other plans, especially Landmark’s (the Hammes Company’s) proposal to develop lifestyle and health districts in the downtown area as part of the One Big Sky Center proposal, to work with DBA to ensure that present business owners can also take advantage of anticipated growth.

The strategic plan, developed by Thomas P. Miller and Associates based on input from DBA members and others, also relies on traditional development strategies. Additional downtown housing — such as second-story apartments above retail establishments — recall an old-fashioned approach to downtown development. Returning one-way streets to two-way and focusing on multi-modal streets that provide easy connectivity will, a plan brochure states, support “increased multi-modal activity and communication within this unique economic and cultural asset.”

DBA was set to deliver a similar presentation Tuesday evening to the Billings City Council.

Dustin Lester, Thomas P. Miller and Associates’ assistant economic development director, said he knew downtown Billings was poised for prosperity when he tried to go out for a meal on a Monday night last fall.

“It was packed,” he said, as he and his team went from one restaurant to another in search of a table. “I’m from Cincinnati, which has 2 million people (in its metropolitan area), and Monday night is dead in Cincinnati. I was so impressed seeing your vibrant downtown on a Monday night.”

The plan builds in part on ideas generated during a DBA visioning event held in October at the Billings Depot and attended by about 150 people. Ideas that night included diverting ditch water to give the downtown a new water feature and inviting food trucks to park downtown late at night to add to the downtown’s vibrancy.

“That was a really impressive community forum,” Lester said. “The entire plan is stakeholder driven. It’s yours.”

During a question-and-answer session after the plan’s rollout, Lester said he believes that the conversion from one-way to two-way downtown streets can occur — but “you need to stay in front of the state and the city on this particular topic.”

Wyeth Friday, Billings’ Planning and Community Services director, said a pedestrian and traffic study that will be released later this year will include input from the Montana Department of Transportation on that very topic.

“There will be some strategies and recommendations,” Friday told the gathering Tuesday. “It’s on its way and going forward.”

Lester said the plan also addresses how DBA will work with the city’s two other urban renewal districts — East Billings and South Billings — because “what happens downtown impacts our neighbors.”

Developing a multi-anchor, mixed-use strategy, à la One Big Sky Center, and focusing on connectivity “is an opportunity to benefit our neighbors.”

The plan recommends DBA boost its membership by offering a variety of membership levels to include college-age residents and business owners. It also has strategies to help DBA “be deliberate about the financial health of the organization” by, in part, looking at efficiencies in facilities and equipment needs.

Another plan recommendation, he said, is “a deeper analysis” of expanding the downtown tax increment funding district to connect Montana State University Billings and the Yellowstone River — One Big Sky Center’s health care district.

The plan release comes on the heels of the announcement of fresh DBA leadership.

“New leadership,” said DBA’s new executive director, Katy Easton, “is the opportunity to refocus, and this is a fantastic opportunity to do that.” She wants to help DBA focus on a central ethos: “At its core, we are a membership organization,” she said.

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.