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Across the city of Billings, businesses are challenged by the consequences of a public safety environment that can be perceived as deteriorating. For existing businesses, the costs of fixing vandalism, lost business due to vagrants, difficulty recruiting talented employees because of the perception of an unsafe community, and violent crimes are adding up and cutting into the bottom line.

With the wave of Baby Boomer retirements approaching, it’s all the more important that Billings is the best version of itself to attract the next generation of workforce. Being “fine,” “OK,” or “mediocre” simply won’t suffice in an increasingly competitive nationwide jobs market that lures away our best and brightest, leaving us hoping they will return someday.

But hope is not a strategy. We need to find a solution together, and the business community is ready to act. “We must be part of the solution,” seemed to be the consensus at a recent gathering of businesses. Discussing how to address the growing frequency of public safety problems in Billings, our businesses acknowledged they need and want to be part of the solution to a complicated problem. Crime, addiction, mental health, and vagrancy are everyone’s issues to address — not just nonprofit providers, law enforcement and government.

Designing security

The Billings Chamber will be utilizing the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) program. The goal of CPTED is to improve safety by using the natural environment. Improving lighting, for instance, is one of the most effective ways to deter criminal behavior and vagrants who otherwise might have a dark business entryway to sleep. Adding decorative railing to public areas can maintain aesthetic appeal and eliminate areas for panhandlers to loiter.

In order to ensure our businesses are aware of the opportunities for improvement, the Billings Chamber is sending a staff member to the national CPTED training course. By early 2020 we’ll be ready to implement the program, sharing with our businesses an approach to crime prevention that has shown success in other areas of the country.

One of the issues we’ve identified in recent conversations with businesses is a need for businesses to take ownership of their space— their storefronts — and hold their neighbors accountable. We will work with those businesses to identify leaders who will create strategies to look after each other, pass along information, and coordinate a program that fosters engagement, personal responsibility and ultimately creates safe zones in our business areas.

Economic development

In addition to empowering our businesses to improve their safety situation, we will continue to advocate for policies that inherently increase public safety. Activating an area by bringing people out is a natural crime deterrent and it doesn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. Moreover, development like the ONE Big Sky District plan the City Council approved would have tremendously increased the tax base, providing additional funding to go toward our public safety needs without raising taxes. Because of these reasons, your Billings Chamber of Commerce will continue to advocate for those policies that benefit our business community, increase public safety, and improve our quality of life.

Ideally, Billings would be breaking ground on smaller, more manageable ONE Big Sky District projects and adding funding to our tax base, have a local option tax that taxes tourists and gives tax relief to our property taxpayers, and didn’t constantly need to go back to property owners to raise funds. Unfortunately, we will be faced with the question of supporting a mill levy to provide for our public safety in Billings.

Public safety levy

We understand the difficulty facing property owners who are continuously asked to step up and fund our needs. But this is essential. Other funding solutions do not currently exist and public safety needs action now to address the issues. We know businesses have a tough time growing due to a lack of qualified workforce. And with Billings’ recent last place finish in a Montana city safety ranking (BackgroundCheck.org), the impression of Billings public safety does not bode well for businesses needing to recruit talent. Which leads us to the need to not only pass a public safety levy, but to identify what is necessary to be included in that levy.

Our Annual Meeting focus is on recognizing our law enforcement and fire fighters, and bringing awareness to the CPTED program. Come honor our local public safety personnel at the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark on Sept. 24  from 11:30 a.m. to 1 pm. You can register at billingschamber.com/events.

The following week, we invite you to join us on Oct. 2 at the Northern Hotel from 8 to 10 a.m. This event is free to attend. Join our business community to help out and be a part of the solution. Let us know your thoughts on the public safety situation in Billings by taking the survey at: https://www.research.net/r/SafetyForum2019.

Like our businesses have said, “We must be part of the solution.” Together we will make Billings the best place to live, work, and play.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.