The future of Billings isn’t abstract to me. Everyday I wake the future up, feed it breakfast, and walk it down the block to second grade at McKinley Elementary. The future has seen aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends move away from Billings because they can’t make a living wage. The future worries about our homeless population. The future doesn’t understand why — aside from the library — nearly every downtown destination costs money. But most of all, the future is the reason I moved back to Billings in the first place.
I grew up in Billings, graduated from West High and the University of Montana — and like many Montana kids, I left the state with no plans to return. For years I lived abroad, taught classrooms, worked at nonprofits, opened a small business, earned a masters’ degree from the University of Michigan, and became a grant writer. After my husband and I had our first daughter, the lure of two sets of grandparents in Billings, coupled with Montana’s pristine outdoor beauty, was so powerful that we packed up the U-Haul and moved back across the country. That was six years ago.
My daughters are now 7 and 1. I know that Billings has so much to offer young families like mine — great schools, music, weather, and parks; a strong business community. The downtown has come a long way since I was a kid, and my friends are now throwing themselves into running new coffee shops, theaters, restaurants and stores. All of this is very exciting, but I also see a number of systemic city problems that aren’t being addressed as effectively as they could be. Year after year our crime rates rise as our public safety budget gets cut. About 25% of people in Billings live in what’s known as a "food desert.” A third of the properties downtown are still vacant, there’s nowhere near enough affordable housing, and it’s been that way my whole life. That’s way too long for a city.
In the next ten years, about 40% of the workforce in Yellowstone County will be eligible for retirement, and we flat-out don’t have the bodies to replace them. We need to be panicking about that right now; many of our our business leaders already are.
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Last year, roughly 60% of small businesses in Billings listed "workforce" as their single largest barrier to expansion. Luring the next generation of Montanans home is critically important to Billings’ future, but it won’t happen on the scale we need if we continue our current trajectory of maintaining the status quo. If we want Billings to remain the economic heart of Montana, we have to embrace the fact that the downtown is the economic heart of our city.
Investment in the downtown like One Big Sky District is what powers development on the outskirts — it’s how we revitalize Castle Rock and Coulson parks, eliminate lead pipes, address mental health challenges, tackle substance abuse, and update our public transport system. My vision for the future of Billings includes a vibrant city core with plenty of live/work options, increased connectivity, lower crime rates, and strategic reinvestment in outdoor recreation to help attract a new generation and expand our economic base.
In a nutshell, I’m running for City Council because I want a safe Billings that my 7-year-old wants to return to as an adult. That’s what got me into this race. The future of Billings is what keeps me up at night, and the needs of that future is the filter through which I will put every single decision.