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Drawn to the Temple: 5 years after it opened, LDS temple attracts people, business
David Pennington is president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Temple in Billings. A staff of six full-time volunteers, two counselors and their wives, and more than 700 other mostly part-time volunteers help with events at the temple. Dr. Barry Smith moved his family to Billings because of the Morman temple. Smith lives with his wife, Erika, and children Nathan, 11, and Hillary, 7.

Dr. Barry Smith, an orthopedic surgeon, lives in Billings with his wife, Erika, and two young children.

The back windows of their spacious West End home frame the white temple that abuts the Rimrocks, built five years ago by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"Could we even ask for a better view?" said Erika Smith, sitting on a couch in the living room with her husband. "I love it."

Not everyone loved it, however, when the temple was proposed to the Billings City Council in 1996. In fact, the project drew complaints from some who said the temple didn't belong in a residential neighborhood.

These days, the temple, with its neatly manicured grounds, seems to evoke little negative comment. And the thousands of church faithful who visit the temple each year have been an economic boost to the community.

The 33,000-square-foot temple and two outer buildings sit on 33 acres, with about 10 of those acres landscaped with grass, trees, shrubs, flowers and parking lots.

The undeveloped church property surrounding the temple to the east and south is divided into 41 home lots on the city's original plat, said Doug Nehring, the Billings Temple recorder. "At this time we have no plans to develop that," he said. If the land is developed, the decision would come from church officials in Salt Lake City and a local developer would have to buy the land and build and sell the houses.

"We had an inquiry two years ago but (the church) decided not to sell it," Nehring said.

Illuminated landmark

A gold statue of the angel Moroni perches atop the temple's 117-foot spire. The exterior of the temple is covered in white Wyoming dolomite with a tan aggregate sandstone finish that, when illuminated at night, can be seen for miles.

For the Smiths, who moved with their children, Nathan and Hillary, now age 11 and 7, to Billings in August 2000, the temple is central to their Christian faith. Barry Smith called it a haven from the frenzy of the world. It's a place where church members can go, he said, "and realize what's important in life - family and church. It helps you refocus on things that matter."

Smith, a hand and microsurgery specialist, moved from San Antonio, Texas, to Billings to join an orthopedic practice. Knowing Billings had a temple helped tip their decision to come here.

"If there had not been a temple here, we likely would not have come," he said, "just because that's something we want the kids to grow up seeing and being around."

LDS temples differ from chapels where members gather for regular weekly services and activities. Temples are considered the faith's most sacred buildings, a place where ordinances such as weddings and baptisms are performed.

Only church members in good standing who receive temple recommends are allowed inside the temples. Once inside, members dress all in white as a symbol of purity.

Closer to the people

The Billings temple came during a period of rapid growth for the LDS church. For most of the church's history, temples were large and located in big cities or areas with large Mormon populations. Members of the church in far-flung areas of the world often had to travel many days at great personal expense to attend a temple.

In the 1990s, the church's leader, Gordon B. Hinkley, announced a plan to bring the temples "closer to the people." The idea was to build smaller temples all over the world, in places like Kiev, Ukraine, and Aba, Nigeria, and Billings. In the years between 1999 and 2004, at least 65 new temples were constructed. There now are 124 Mormon temples, with seven more headed for construction.

Regional draw

In Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota, there are at least 36,000 church members who use the Billings Temple, said Nehring.

People come from as far south as Casper, north to Glendive, east toward North Dakota and as far west as Butte. That doesn't include visitors passing through from other parts of the country, he added.

Nehring is employed full time at the temple and is both the property manager and a consultant to temple President David Pennington. Called in 1999 to the Billings post by church leadership in Salt Lake City, he also oversees a paid support staff of about 20 people.

Leadership of the temple also is made up of six full-time volunteers, a president and two counselors and their wives. Pennington assumed the position two years ago. He worked for the Department of the Interior in Indian Affairs before retiring to volunteer full time at the temple. He and his wife, Maryan, as temple matron, help with all the ordinances at the temple.

"My part is primarily ecclesiastical, calling and training those who serve here and making sure the teachings and blessings of the temple are taught as they should be," Pennington said.

Nearly 700 other mostly part-time volunteers assist in three daily shifts at the temple, which remains open Tuesday through Saturday. Patrons start arriving at about 6 a.m. and the temple closes at 7:30 p.m. six days and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, so traffic tends to trickle in and out all day, said Nehring, during an interview in a small room toward the front of the temple.

"There are about 200 volunteers and visitors at the temple at any one time," he said.

Economic impact

Most of those who visit the temple travel from outside the area. Pinpointing what kind of economic impact they make locally is difficult, said Scott Larsen, general manager of the Holiday Inn Grand Montana and president of the Billings Hotel Motel Association.

"There are a lot of things spawning growth in Billings," he said. "Is the temple part of it? Yes, it would have something to do with it. Is it the only factor? No."

Fred Hopkin, a Powell, Wyo., farmer, said he and his wife Carrie and sometimes their four children drive 90 miles to the Billings Temple. Before construction of the temple, the family traveled six or seven hours to a temple in Idaho Falls.

They also have visited temples in Salt Lake City and Alberta, Canada, "just wherever we happened to be able to go. But it was never convenient."

And they only went about once a year. Now with the Billings Temple, they make the trip at least 12 times a year, twice as often as they used to come to town.

"I've never been to temple when we didn't go out to dinner," he said. "Probably for about six or eight of those times, we stay in a motel."

Then they divide their time Saturday between the temple and shopping, before going back to Powell. Other Mormon friends he knows don't necessarily stay overnight.

"But just about everybody goes to dinner, goes to Costco or the mall and spends some time and some money," Hopkin said. "I have no doubt that it's had an economic impact."

Dale Getz is president of the Billings Montana Stake, a group of 12 area Mormon congregations. There is another stake that size based in the Heights with a separate president. Getz is convinced the temple has been a factor in drawing new people to Billings and new members to the church.

"These are good, wonderful people adding to the community's vitality," said Getz, who also is an ExxonMobile executive and a member of the School District 2 Board of Trustees.

Dr. Spencer Zaugg, a Billings dentist, moved to Billings from Illinois two years ago with his wife and five children. Originally from Utah, Zaugg wanted to find a dental practice that wouldn't be further than 10 hours from family "so we could make a day trip."

Schools were an important consideration, he said, along with a nearby temple.

"It was icing on the cake," Zaugg said. "It wasn't that we had to move where there was a temple, but, boy, it was certainly nice that we could do that."

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