A political rally, a commercial shoot, an alumni gathering and American Legion players took the place of the Mustangs at Dehler Park for this year’s baseball season.
Because of an agreement reached between the city and the Billings Mustangs, the ball park opened up to a variety of events that occupied the space at no cost. Last week, the stadium hosted several elected officials who received a platform that reached hundreds.
The dilemma of allowing political rallies at the stadium with no charge, effectively paid for by the city, is one of several issues that city officials will have to consider as the future of the Pioneer League team at the end of the 2020 baseball season remains unclear.
“Honestly, it’s not a conversation I’ve had with anybody. … Once we started on our agreement this year with the Mustangs, we opened up the opportunity to have the American Legion play there, and most everything that’s gone on in there has been tied to baseball,” said Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski.
In June of this year, management with the Billings Mustangs announced that the outbreak of COVID-19 had made it unlikely for the team to take the field for the 2020 Pioneer League Season. Although the city owns Dehler Park, it has leased the site to the Mustangs since 2008.
The club typically pays $60,000 annually to play at the park. With their season canceled for the year, Kukulski said the city indemnified the team and assumed responsibility of managing Dehler Park during that time to ensure that it didn’t sit empty through October.
The City of Billings is currently paying off the $12.5 million bond approved by voters in 2008. The Billings Gazette previously reported that the final payment will be due in July 2027.
Gary Roller, the general manager for the Billings Mustangs could not be reached to clarify how much it typically costs to rent out the stadium under normal circumstances.
While the bulk of events at the park during the past several months have been American Legion and Little League games, Crow Tribal Chairman Alvin “A.J.” Not Afraid submitted an application to hold a rally Sept. 30 during his campaign for reelection. According to the memorandum signed by Not Afraid and Kukulski, the Crow Tribe was responsible for the “setup, cleanup and all health and safety protocols related to COVID-19.”
The rally, held under the name of “Crow Lives Matter,” spotlighted Not Afraid and three other candidates running for election in the Crow's executive branch. Leading up to the candidates reaching out to the several hundred potential voters who attended, local and state officials stepped up to home plate to make their own comments.
Those included Montana Public Service Commissioner Tony O’Donnell and Montana House Representative Barry Usher, both running for reelection, and both using their time to voice their support of the Crow Tribe of Indians, and Not Afraid’s campaign pledge to expand on coal mining on the reservation.
Billings City Council member Pam Purinton also attended, but did not realize until she arrived that she was at a political rally.
“I thought it was a meeting between legislators and members of the Crow Tribe to discuss coal. … Knowing that I’m a proponent of fossil fuels, that’s why I was invited,” she said.
Although Purinton’s views on fossil fuels aligned with those of the other speakers, she said did not come to the event to speak, but rather to listen. Particularly during a time when active COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high, she said the rally should not have happened.
“Especially when it’s with a group that is not even from Billings, and that’s not to say anything against the Crow Tribe, and nothing against the mayor,” she said.
On the use of Dehler Park for political purposes, Purinton said she hadn’t given the matter much thought. With the future of the park unknown, she said the city had to start considering what other kinds of use its residents could get out of the park. She said she had no problem with political candidates hosting rallies at the facility at a later time, if they paid for it.
“One thing that you’re witnessing here is us learning how do we manage Dehler Park, what type of events should and shouldn’t be at the ball park. I would expect something like this to go to the council for debate,” City Administrator Kukulski said.
Jared Stewart, public affairs officer for the Crow Tribe of Indians, said he did not know who reached out to city and state officials who attended the rally, but wanted to extend his thanks for their speaking at the event.
After canceling a tailgate at Hardin High School because of COVID-19 precautions, the next “Crow Lives Matter” drive-through rally will be held at MetraPark’s upper parking lot Wednesday. MetraPark General Manager Bill Dutcher said that although organizers are typically charged when they use any portion of the property, those hosting Wednesday’s rally would not be charged “as a sign of good faith.”
Stewart said that as far as he knew, only the four Crow Tribe candidates running for office were slated to speak at the upcoming rally. The primary election of the tribe is Oct. 10.
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