Swords Park — with its paved trail, small picnic shelter, benches, restrooms and history exhibits near Yellowstone Kelly's grave — has become popular with runners, cyclists, dog walkers and families. The views of Billings, the South Hills and Beartooth Mountains are spectacular. People of all ages and abilities visit for exercise, scenery and conversation.
The Rims are one of the city's premier natural attractions; it's important to showcase those sandstone cliffs to promote the active, outdoor lifestyle that keeps many residents here and attracts newcomers to settle here for work and family life.
The Yellowstone River is Billings' other natural wonder. But our city hasn't invested in showcasing the free flowing river as it should.
The place to start is Coulson Park, a 50-acre strip of river frontage south of Interstate 90. It is the city park most visible to motorists. It sits at Billings' busiest gateway, but doesn't do our city justice. Passersby probably don't even recognize it as a park. If they notice it at all, they see overgrown grass and unpaved driveways.
The Jim Dutcher Trail runs the length of Coulson Park, making the park a central link in the riverside trail that starts in the Heights near Medicine Crow Middle School and now ends at Mystic Park near the city water plant. Coulson Park should be both a destination for bicyclists and a safe, attractive stop on their route. The Coulson Park master plan should guide Billings to that goal.
The master plan must be pragmatic, recognizing that only a limited amount of grant money specific to Coulson is available for development — unless and until the city changes its policy and provides significant funds for park development.
The city parks department and the landscape architecture firm working on the Coulson Park master plan are commended for the extensive community outreach conducted so far and the additional ongoing opportunities for Billings people to say what they want at their park.
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At a Park Board presentation Wednesday, architects from DHM Design outlined development options based on community input. Park Department Director Mike Whitaker said the options will be refined into a draft proposal over the next month, brought back to the Park Board and then presented at a City Council work session. Whitaker hopes that the council will adopt a master plan by year's end, so work that grants will cover can start in spring 2020.
As the architects, the volunteer Park Board members and the City Council sketch out a future for this unique park we recommend that they:
- Focus on making Coulson an attractive gateway feature for Billings, to showcase the riverfront and let travelers know that our working, industrial city values outdoor activities and public lands.
- Emphasize access for trail users and boaters.
- Make the existing trail and any new walking trails accessible to persons with disabilities.
- Make a plan for developing the park in phases.
- Consider how the park development will interface with future use of the Corette plant property on the upstream side of the park.
- Ensure that park plan fits with development of new trail connections budgeted in the city's five-year Capital Improvement Plan, including a trail connection between Coulson Park and downtown, and a possible connection from Coulson to Lockwood and Four Dances Natural Area atop Sacrifice Cliff.
- Include safety and speed control on Charlene Street, the only motor vehicle route to the park.
- Incorporate the history of Coulson, the riverside community that moved to become Billings when the railroad came in during the 1880s.
- Don't plan to build large structures in this park, which is largely in the flood plain.
- Put a priority on safety for the public.
Recognizing the tremendous value of trails and attractive gateways, Big Sky Economic Development is working with the city on Coulson Park. The master plan is funded by Big Sky Economic Development and compensation from ExxonMobil for the Yellowstone River oil spill several years ago. The economic development agency is working to raise $250,000 to match a $250,000 grant for park development. An additional $110,000 is available for this park's development. None of these funds came from city taxes.
The money is limited so it must be spent carefully. To do nothing with Coulson Park would waste this money and a golden opportunity to transform a wild and weedy riverbank into a safer, welcoming Park.
We look forward to the day when Billings folks can be proud of Coulson Park and visitors will see this city values the industries along the river as well as its citizens' quality of life.
Be part of the Coulson Park planning. Go to coulsonpark.com to comment on what you want or don't want in your city park.