Prairie Lights: For city of Billings, opportunity knocks


Billings could be sitting on the edge of some big opportunities.

Listening to Hammes Co. President Bob Dunn last week, when he was telling the Billings City Council about the transformation of One Big Sky Center from a single downtown project to a comprehensive development strategy, I heard echoes from years ago.

What really struck me in Dunn’s presentation was his insistence that Billings, if it did not want to be left in the dust, had to start thinking big, in a very organized way.

Ed Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

In the plan Dunn presented to the council last Monday, the Hammes Co. said that the biggest metropolitan areas in the country, those with at least 5 million people or more, made the biggest population gains — increasing on average by double digits — between 2000 and 2010.

Now, he said, millennials, baby boomers and members of the “creative class” still want to live in places with urban amenities, but they are looking for places that aren’t so expensive and offer more convenient access to those amenities.

They are looking, in other words, at cities the size of Billings.

The echoes I heard were the words of Larry Swanson, director of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. In the early and mid-2000s, Swanson was a frequent visitor to Billings, spreading the message — backed up by heaps of economic data — that cities were the new economic engines of Montana.

His contention was that Montana’s major cities had to find some means of continually improving themselves — in terms of public infrastructure, services, good schools at all levels, recreational offerings, etc. — if they wanted to compete with hundreds of other mid-size cities across the country.

At one presentation he made in Billings in 2006, Swanson pointed out that 71 percent of the people in Montana lived within 40 miles of the state’s seven largest cities.

Those trends have continued, even accelerated. In a recent report from the O’Connor Center, Swanson noted that between 1970 and 2016, the counties containing those seven urban centers saw their populations rise from 376,631 to 660,741.

In that same period, the 27 counties “closely linked” to the seven urban counties also saw an increase in population, though not so robust, from 177,847 to 253,187. In the other 22 counties, identified as isolated, rural counties, there was a population drop, from 142,594 to 128,592.

Swanson used to say in those presentations, and he said it again in an email to me last week, that the Montana Legislature hasn’t shown much interest in helping cities realize their potential. Legislators, he said, continue to see the economy through the “rearview mirror,” devoting most of their attention to extraction industries that continue to decline despite periodic booms and busts.

To benefit from urban-based economic growth, he said, cities need to invest in “infrastructure, education, and community livability.” Doing so, he added, “requires sustained leadership” and continuing cooperation between public and private entities in their cities and in the regions of which they are part.

Leadership and cooperation have been in evidence only sporadically since Swanson first brought his eye-opening research to Billings. Celebrate Billings, the group that sponsored most of his visits, slowly evaporated, to be replaced by Billings Now, which has some of the same member organizations but doesn’t have nearly the same high profile.

Ditto with the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development. Both are hitting some of the same themes that Swanson used to hammer away at, but without quite the consistency and forcefulness that seem to be needed.

Slowly, though, the stars have been coming into alignment. The team behind the original One Big Sky Center project had goals that were simultaneously too grandiose and too limited. By bringing in Hammes Co., and especially Dunn, who possesses a winning mix of experience and enthusiasm, the powers that be in Billings are beginning to focus on the big picture again.

And Mayor-elect Bill Cole, who takes office next month, seems to be ready to provide the kind of leadership Swanson was talking about. Cole told me last week that his involvement in economic development and community betterment started after the Swanson era, but he clearly has been influenced by those days and the ideas percolating then.

This is not to fully endorse Dunn’s vision for downtown Billings or the city as a whole. Whether the Hammes Co. takes the lead in downtown redevelopment is a decision that the City Council will have to make, after receiving and digesting a lot more information first.

But I am happy to see this renewed emphasis on a subject — the idea that cities need to make a serious effort to attract new residents, new businesses, new sources of revenue — that once seemed so compelling but then seemed to fade away.

The city is sitting on opportunities we can’t afford to pass up.

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