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If the people of Reno, Nev., and Boise, Idaho, had gathered 50 years ago to plan the future of their communities, what might they have done differently?

That is the kind of question that guides the thinking of the people who organized “Billings, Big Sky and Beyond: Vision 2050,” a three-day conference set to open Thursday in the Radisson Northern Hotel.

Randy Hafer, president of High Plains Architects and an organizer of the conference, said Reno and Boise were about the size of Billings when they began to grow dramatically 20 years ago.

“It does seem that Billings is at an interesting point in its history,” he said. “We could be sitting right on the cusp of a big wave.”

Hafer, a Billings native who came home in 1992 after working as an architect in Chicago for 11 years, said he had been thinking about organizing such a conference for a long time. In Chicago and in other cities he visited, Hafer said, he realized that Billings needed to plan for growth rather than just let it happen.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, he said, he drove for an hour and a half at freeway speeds and never left the L.A. area. And “every exit was King Avenue,” he said. “Every Main Street was the same commercial strip. There was a Denny’s, a Wal-Mart and a Target.”

“We’re not there yet,” he said of Billings. “We’re not so big that we can’t do anything.”

“Billings, Big Sky and Beyond” will bring together architects, planners, elected officials, students and area residents to come up with a vision of what they want Billings and the surrounding region to look like in the year 2050.

Hafer said the conference, or “charrette,” will look 50 years into the future and inside a 60-mile radius surrounding Billings. The hope is that by looking far and wide enough, the conference will generate visionary aspirations that are not tied to details such as zoning regulations or the cost of pursuing the goals.

A charrette originally denoted the intense final effort made by architecture students to solve an architectural problem in an allotted time. It now refers to a concentrated, collaborative design process that brings a variety of people together to devise plans or solutions to a given problem.

Experts from around the state and country will make presentations on transportation, agriculture and open space, housing, the landscape and environment, technology and economic development.

For the last day and a half of the conference, participants will break into work groups to discuss specific issues and to begin designing plans for the future of the Billings urban area. Thirty-six architecture students from an urban design class at MSU-Bozeman will take part in the conference and will compile all the plans and recommendations into a book.

The hope is that the document will be used to help chart the future of the area and also be available as a guide to similar planning processes around the state.

Ed Gulick, a Billings native who returned home last spring to work at High Plains Architects, said he came back for the same reasons Hafer did.

“Americans are always looking for paradise,” he said. “They keep shifting. They’re never willing to settle and focus on it and create it. I’m ready to settle down and create it, and that’s what this conference is all about.”

Gulick’s father, MSU-Billing philosophy professor Walt Gulick, helped organize the recent “Rivers, Rims and Visions” conference, and one aim of the coming conference will be to build on the ideas generated at that earlier gathering.

Billings has a long way to go in planning for the future, Hafer said, but there are encouraging signs.

“People are beginning to understand that we ought to do something,” he said. “Let’s do something conscious. Let’s not just roll along.”

Ed Kemmick can be reached at (406) 657-1293 or ekemmick@billingsgazette.com

About the conference

The “Billings, Big Sky and Beyond” conference will be held at the Radisson Northern Hotel in downtown Billings Thursday through Saturday. Registration begins at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, and the conference opens at 1 p.m.

Speakers over the three days will include:

Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia, who created a landmark “charrette” or planning process, for Surrey, B.C.

James Charlier, a regional transportation planner from Boulder, Colo.

J. Philip Gottwals, an agricultural and rural development expert.

Russ Palmer, an information network designer from Billings.

Dave Sharpe, community development program leader for Montana State University Extension.

Sponsors of the conference include the Billings Architectural Association, AERO (Alternative Energy Resources Organization), High Plains Architects, Mid Yellowstone Land Trust, the Montana Smart Growth Coalition, Northern Plains Resource Council, the Turner Foundation and the Yellowstone River Parks Association.

The cost of the conference is $5 for Thursday and $15 each for Friday and Saturday. The daily fee includes refreshments, and lunch on Friday and Saturday.

For more information, call Marga Lincoln at AERO, (406) 443-7272, or Randy Hafer at High Plains Architects, 896-0250.

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