As I drop down Interstate 90 into the river valley that holds the “Magic City,” I swear: I won’t ever live in Billings, Montana.
The sun glints off a spawling refinery that dominates the city’s eastern entrance. A sickly sweet smell smacks my face, making my teeth ache and my stomach curl. And they’re processing sugar beets on the South Side.
Somewhere in this landlocked dustbowl are 100,000 people sprawling west along the Yellowstone River, which winds across the city’s southern belly. Yet all I see as I enter the city are neon signs shouting “liquor” and “casino” amongst the transients curled in doorways.
Downtown morphs from a gritty scene to a workingman’s paradise. Bank buildings dominate the landscape and hospitals stretch across the land like arteries, overtaking historic neighborhoods in the city’s core.
Surely this “magic” city has been misnamed.
The above is an except from “A Retrospective of Music Culture in Billings, Montana,” which I published in 2012, just about eight years after moving to Billings. The town in which I swore I’d never live welcomed me with a job, a house I could afford, and a growing number of entertainment opportunities. I stayed and worked my way through my late 20s and early 30s, finding that the city offered everything I thought it couldn’t—art, culture, love, adventure and a career.
In the past few years, the city’s growth has been substantial, not only in population, but in what Lisa Harmon, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, calls an “experiential economy.”
“A lot has changed in our economies and the way we buy and shop, but we continue to see that people want to have meaningful experiences in their cities,” Harmon said. “Whether it is at a brewery or coffee shop or museum, we want our experiences full of interactions with our community.”
I’ve lived elsewhere, but never long enough to watch a city expand in the ways that Billings has. Gone are days of residents bemoaning the city for its lack of things to do. Billings is a place of culture, bustling with live music, collaborative performance, art installations, and food grown and prepared locally.
Such growth is most apparent in downtown. The opening of new art galleries, a cinema, music and performance venues, coffee shops, restaurants and bakeries are testaments to the city’s economic and cultural health. Cities need anchors, a place for community to gather, and our downtown serves as such. Here our curiosities can be explored, our palettes enlivened, and our eyes opened to the imaginations of others.
Reflecting back just a year or so on the growth of downtown: The first dog-friendly art gallery opened—one of four new art galleries in the heart of the city. Niche coffee shops like MoAv and Ebon Coffee Collective appeared, offering coffee prepared in innovative ways while providing new community space.
A cooperative bookstore and tea shop opened across the street from the Alberta Bair Theater, owned and operated by regional writers and community members. Just a block down on Third Avenue North, an apothecary opened, and across the street at Knotty Wood Guitar Co., a local luthier makes instruments in-house, records videos of local and traveling musicians, and hosts live music events.
Around the corner, Thirsty Street joined the brewery scene, becoming the seventh brewer operating commercially in Billings while also offering live music, parking for food truck vendors, and community events. Kitty-corner from the brewery is Art House Cinema and Pub. The independent movie theater was constructed in an old bowling alley, and theater founders already have plans to expand to three screens in the former lanes.
Along Montana Avenue, newcomers include Red Lodge Ales, which opened a pub, hard cider mill, and distribution center, and 2905—a performance and event space for rent. Across the tracks, a record store that hosts musical performances is expanding to include a recording studio, and the owners of Fieldhouse café opened up the Annex, a coffeehouse and bakery attached to their restaurant.
To compound such growth, a group of Colorado developers announced plans in August for One Big Sky Center along North 29th, a multiple-use project that would include the state’s tallest skyscraper. With so many buildings still sitting empty, and partial funding to fall on the city, the reception to such development has been mixed, but the revitalization of downtown is undeniable.
Room to Grow
Though Red Lodge Ales opened Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill down the street from established pub and brewery Überbrew, Chad Broderius—self-described Beer Apostle at Überbrew—doesn’t consider his new neighbors to be competition, but rather another piece of the puzzle that downtown needs.
“Arts, services, food and beverage draw people downtown, and that it’s happening on a local level is exciting and healthy,” Broderius said. “The more we can get these types of business growing together and supporting one another, the merrier.”
Similarly, downtown’s newest art galleries, all within a block of one another, work together to encourage art patrons to invest in art.
“There is some of the best art in the world here,” said Zach Terakedis, who opened Terakedis Fine Art in August on North Broadway. “We complement each other, and we are actively sending people to one other.”
Kira Fercho opened Western Art Forum on the corner of Second Avenue North and North 27th in what could be described as downtown’s fishbowl.
“It’s been a source of entertainment for downtown Billings,” Fercho said. On any given day passersby can see Fercho and gallery manager Kevin Rose in the windows rotating and hanging new art with Boris—Rose’s bow-tie-wearing pit bull—by their side.
Rose, a self-taught artist whose textured works depict airy abstract landscapes, and Fercho, whose thick, impasto-style oil paintings depict scenes of Montana, have lived in Billings most of their lives. Fercho operates a gallery in Big Sky, but decided to open a second location in Billings because of its strong and loyal art community.
“There are a lot of creative minds and entrepreneurs here, way more than anywhere I’ve ever been,” Fercho said. Though she travels extensively, Fercho describes Billings as her mothership. “It’s a great place to be from and do business and raise a family and jump on a plane and travel and come back to.”
Rose, for his part, said his background in restaurant work helped prep him for the art world. As Lilac’s front of house manager for four years, Rose helped owner-chef Jeremy Engebretson bring his vision of local, approachable, made-from-scratch food to Billings.
“Working at Lilac changed my life,” Rose said. “It opened my eyes to a different way of experiencing food and what food means. It’s not just sustenance. They care so much and want to change how people experience food. It just seeps into you.”
In similar ways, Rose and Fercho set out to make art approachable with a variety of price points, making the gallery space dog-friendly, and rotating art frequently with a strong focus on local and Montana artists.
Home is where the art is
Fercho is one of a growing number of artists choosing Montana as a home and place of business. According to a 2005 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, Montana ranked among the top four states in the nation for fine artists per capita.
In that report, nearly 2 million Americans said their primary employment was in the arts—representing career fields from architects to interior designers to photographers to the performing arts.
“The American dream has changed,” said the DBA’s Harmon. “That shift has allowed a resurgence of a concentration on arts and culture. We are realizing an investment in the arts has an economic impact.”
Art-focused entrepreneurs are changing the landscape of our country and creating a multimillion-dollar impact, according to the Center for Applied Economic Research at Montana State University Billings. The center reported that in Montana artists generated more than $28 million in sales in 2003 (the bulk originating from out-of-state business). Such sales supported more than 729 jobs in the state and resulted in an additional $11 million in non-art-related spending that year.
Robyn Peterson, executive director of Yellowstone Art Museum and a driving force behind art-based development, said Billings has been the leading and largest arts locale in the state for decades.
“Yet, the city’s reputation is more business and service-focused,” Peterson said. “We see that shifting to be arts-inclusive, but only as a certain critical mass of culturally oriented places arises. The more that’s here, the more both tourists and those looking to relocate find a strong reason to choose Billings.”
Creating a creative culture
When looking to the future of Billings, Peterson, Harmon and others are focusing on “placemaking” to create public spaces that promote community well-being.
“Placemaking attracts people and makes people want to stay in their town and have a relationships with their city,” Harmon said. “If they have a relationship with their city, it is more likely that they will stay.”
Part of this movement is working to bring Artspace, an affordable live/work housing project, to Billings. According to a 2009 Artspace survey, 182 local artists from Billings and surrounding areas said they would consider moving into an Artspace project in Billings.
Such economic investment could create an opportunity to provide a balance or mix of housing choices as Billings continues to grow, said Anya Fiechtl, an architect with High Plains Architects who has been working on the Artspace project.
“In addition to the importance of providing affordable housing, we also know that a concentration of artists spurs other development,” Fiechtl said. “An Artspace project could have the ripple effect of expanding the success of downtown into areas like east Billings.”
Other Artspace communities, such as Loveland, Colo., have demonstrated increased economic growth following construction, including commercial development and an influx of patrons to the area immediately surrounding such projects.
“This project would complement impacts of One Big Sky Center, and help Billings grow in a sustainable way, providing more economic diversity and stability,” Fiechtl said.
Community risk takers
“You have to be willing to put your ass on the line and your money out there,” said Sean Lynch, who has been booking and promoting music in Billings since he was a teenager. “You’ve got to be willing to take the plunge.”
Lynch and his wife, Ann Kosempa, opened the Pub Station—a dedicated music venue that was created in the former Greyhound bus station on First Avenue North—at the end of 2014. Today, the Pub Station is on the heels of a season where they produced shows 280 days a year and they are heading into an ambitious expansion, doubling the venue’s capacity to 800.
Lynch attributes the success of the venue to timing and a larger audience in Billings, showing up for a diversity of music. “We did way better numbers than we ever imagined,” Lynch said. The expansion will allow Lynch and crew to bring higher- caliber acts to Billings—something the smaller venue couldn’t support.
Lynch, in his early 40s, was born in Billings, moved away to Portland, and returned. He’s seeing friends and people in his age group moving back, “people I’d never have thought in a million years would live here,” he said. “Billings has become a livable place. Ultimately, for Billings to succeed we need people to come here and to stay.”
Best town in America
Being named the best town in America by Outside magazine has put national attention on Billings recently. Hailing our mountain biking opportunities and craft breweries, as well as the music and food scene, Outside did a quick dive into Billings.
The highlight reel might court residents, but how does a town keep them? Maddie Alpert came to Billings as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the task of creating a literacy program to serve students living in public housing and other affordable housing programs administered by the Housing Authority of Billings.
“A lot of people I met were genuinely invested in making Billings a better place to live and I recall being excited by the opportunity to be a part of that movement,” Alpert said. When her one-year VISTA term ended, Alpert decided to stay in Billings, “mostly because I have managed to find a great community here—something that I’ve noticed many of my friends in bigger cities struggling to find,” she said.
Alpert is now the family self-sufficiency/homeownership coordinator
for the Housing Authority of Billings, but the program she began, now called Wild Words, continues under the guidance of Sam Heaps. Heaps was previously working in Philadelphia and volunteering in the evenings at a well-established mentoring center. She was similarly brought to Billings through the VISTA program.
Heaps has a vision for Wild Words to become an environment where students feel safe enough to not only develop reading skills but creative skills.
“I know the therapeutic value of the arts and the ability they have to open mental doors that might otherwise remain closed,” Heaps said. “My favorite successes have been seeing students explore their unique interpretation of the world and discover ways they can express their perceptions and experiences—even if those experiences are painful—through writing and art.”
Heaps doesn’t intend to stay in Billings. “I’ve met a lot of great people here and I think there’s an interesting arts subculture that’s manifesting, but I don’t really feel at home in the U.S.,” she said. Heaps hopes to graduate and live abroad “in a more global environment.”
Alpert, who has struggled with shyness, said she feels lucky to live in a place where people have been so welcoming. She plays music and writes her own songs and was welcomed into the local music scene in a way she wasn’t expecting at an open mic night at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., where she met local musicians Wes Urbaniak and Troy Owens.
“I think they could both sense how intimidated I was to play,” Alpert said. Although all of the performance slots were filled that night, Urbaniak offered Alpert some of his set time while Owens cheered her on. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget how kind they were, and that evening definitely encouraged me to want to keep performing and writing.”
“Music represents community, oftentimes,” said Urbaniak, a national touring musician who recently opened Knotty Wood Guitar Co. at 2913 Third Ave. N. The storefront gives Urbaniak space for performance and for recording, while his guitar-building operation is housed upstairs.
“This space is conducive to self-expression,” Urbaniak said. “The shop gives me the ability to be isolated enough to build the guitar and gives me a space where people can see it, can touch it and can understand it. They will understand what they are holding in their hands far more than what I could communicate about what I intended to do.”
The arts are tangible. In the breath of dancers, in the thick, not-nearly-dry oil paints cut onto canvas, or in the reverberations of handmade guitars, the arts can be touched.
Culture is a bit more elusive, but you can feel it in the pulse of a chef working late nights to create a new menu. You can see it in the sweat of dancers and actors during weekend rehearsals. Culture is built in those unsettled feelings lingering in the stomachs of those who don’t have any guarantees that what they’re doing will succeed. When there’s a community filled with such risk-takers, you see culture—and those creating and enjoying it—grow.