At a meeting called to envision future use of a 74-acre riverfront site that until recently held a coal-fired power plant, participants were encouraged to use their imaginations.
That they did, coming up with activities and attractions for the old J.E. Corette plant site that included sport fields, an amphitheater, disc golf, picnic areas, a museum, restaurants, a brewery, high-density housing and a zip line to the site from the towering Sacrifice Cliffs across the Yellowstone River.
Jennifer Merecki, with the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council, the main sponsor of the event, said Billings should be doing all it can to live up to its adopted nickname, “Montana’s Trailhead.”
“Here’s a rare opportunity to make that dream come true,” she said.
About 60 people attended the three-hour “Corette Site Design Charrette” Saturday afternoon in the Fellowship Hall of Billings First Church, 310 N. 27th St. A charrette is a short, intense effort to design a project or solve a development problem. At this one, small groups of people came up with dozens of ideas for the Corette property, then used poster-size sheets of paper to create visual representations of their ideas.
It remains to be seen whether any of the ideas will come to fruition. Darryl Wilson, president of the Yellowstone River Parks Association, one of the sponsoring groups, said he spoke Thursday with a representative of Talen Energy, which owns the property.
Wilson said he was told that Talen is in talks with a potential buyer and hopes to announce a sale within the next month. The plant was shut down in April 2015 by PPL Montana, which then spun off the plant and other assets to Talen Energy.
Organizers of the charrette hope to influence potential buyers and local governing bodies to pay heed to the desires of local residents, or, if the pending sale falls through, to encourage another entity—perhaps a nonprofit foundation—to buy the land for public use.
Many of the ideas thrown out at the charrette could be implemented no matter what happens to the site, which is in Yellowstone County and is zoned for heavy industrial use.
Those ideas included planting a row of trees to shield the site from the adjoining Interstate 90, building a greenbelt around the perimeter of the site and creating a bike and pedestrian trail through the property, making it part of the “Marathon Loop” trail.
Dale Anderson, with Our Montana, which promotes “stewardship and enjoyment of Montana’s natural, historic and recreational resources,” encouraged participants to take the long view, thinking of what Billings might need or want to see 50 or 100 years from now.
Each group compiled four lists: One of “desired public activities,” one of “compatible private uses,” one of “incompatible private uses” and one of “mitigation”—steps that might be taken to lessen the unfavorable aspects of whatever ends up on the site, or to deal with existing features like settling ponds and riverbank riprap.
Among the desired activities, in addition to the ones mentioned above, were bird watching, boat rides, mountain biking, a trolley ride to downtown Billings, community gardening, kayaking and canoeing.
Compatible uses included rental cabins, a nursery, a drive-in theater, a marina, bike rentals, ice-skating rinks, a farmers’ market and light commercial businesses. Uses deemed incompatible included casinos, a cemetery, big-box stores, refining and other heavy industry, billboards and large parking lots.
To mitigate problems at the site, suggestions included having the land rezoned, burying power lines, landscaping and berming, filling in the settling ponds, removing riprap and annexing the land into the city.
Some of the more creative ideas, in addition to the zip line, included offering ferry rides across the river to the Bureau of Land Management’s Four Dances Natural Area, and opening a steamboat hotel and a restaurant in an old railroad dining car.
Ed Gulick, an architect and board member of the Northern Plains Resource Council, was the facilitator at the charrette. He said growth in Billings has always been driven by developers and should now, to some extent at least, be community-driven.
And the time is ripe for community planning and visioning exercises, he said, because nowadays, “quality of life is almost synonymous with economic development.”
The work produced Saturday will be compiled into a master plan that will be given to governing bodies, to Talen Energy and to anybody else who is interested in the future of the site, Merecki said at the end of the charrette.
Also, she told those in attendance, “share this vision with everyone you know. Because there is power in numbers.”