Easton, 39, was chosen to replace Lisa Harmon, who was the DBA’s executive director for 12 years before leaving at the end of last year.
Meanwhile, the search to replace the DBA’s former development director, Greg Krueger, will continue, with that position being filled temporarily by Billings architect Maisie Sulser, who has served on DBA boards since 2009. Easton’s annual salary will be $75,000 and Sulser’s will be $56,000.
Easton was introduced Wednesday morning in the law office of Andy Patten, who chairs the Downtown Billings Partnership board. Also on hand was architect Randy Hafer, who chairs the Downtown Business Improvement District board, and Sulser, who will be stepping down as chair of the Downtown Billings Association board when she starts as interim development director.
Those three boards, which make up the Downtown Billings Alliance, were responsible for choosing new leadership for the DBA.
Hafer said board members were not satisfied with any of the applicants to replace Krueger, so they decided to have Sulser work with the new CEO as she learns the job, then work together to find a permanent development director at some point in the future.
There was no hesitation in choosing the new CEO, Hafer said, and it was fortunate that the top two finalists who applied to succeed Harmon were “far and away the best out of the 16 candidates.”
Easton came to Billings two and a half years ago from Colorado, where she was a commercial construction project manager for 12 years. She said she moved here with her husband, James Easton, a native of Laurel, when he took a job teaching at Billings Senior High School.
At Big Sky ED, a public-private partnership that promotes economic development in Yellowstone County, she has worked for two years as the community development project manager. She said her main project was the Lockwood Targeted Economic Development District, which brought her into contact with city and county government workers and elected officials, as well as engineers, architects, developers and many others.
“That’s introduced me to this community in a unique way,” she said. She also said the project “really gave me, from the bottom up, an understanding of tax increment financing.”
Given the huge role TIF funding has played in downtown redevelopment, Hafer said, finding a CEO with that kind of background “is incredible.” He said Krueger knew more about state laws governing TIF funding than anyone else in Montana, and “we didn’t want to go through another 19-year learning curve.”
Easton said her work at the Big Sky ED included partnering with the state Department of Labor and Industry on a registered apprenticeship program, which she hopes could benefit downtown businesses, particularly in the hospitality industry, which was one focus of the program.
Besides working with the state, Easton said she’ll be working closely with city government, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky ED, other organizations and private businesses throughout the city.
“By leveraging those partnerships, we can get a lot of things done,” she said.
She is also eager to work on bike and pedestrian trails, and on efforts to link mountain-biking trails around the area to city trails. She said she is an avid mountain biker and serves on the board Pedal United, a chapter of the International Mountain Bike Association.
Hafer said that when the DBA was founded 20 years ago, it was made up of people with no experience in such an organization, and over the years it grew organically.
Now, he said, with new leadership, a recently completed housing survey and an overhauled strategic plan nearing completion, “it’s like a new day.”
Easton acknowledged that there is a lot for the head of the DBA to keep abreast of, including parking issues, retail recruitment, snow removal, homelessness and transient issues and major projects like the One Big Sky Center development.
It is a “juggling act” for sure, she said, “but there is an amazing staff on board.”
Patten said she will be able to call on Krueger, who is retired but still in Billings, and Harmon, who is now the minister of healing and community transformation at First Congregational Church, the oldest church in downtown Billings.
There she will be working with the transient population and people with addiction problems and coming up with ways for the congregation to play a role in engaging with the community around the church.
In a related vein, Hafer said, Community Innovations Inc., which was started to deal with transience, serial inebriation and related issues, will become a fourth member group of the Downtown Billings Alliance, with its own board.
As development director, Sulser will be in charge of the TIF district, commercial recruitment and retention and building relationships with DBA members and other city and county organizations.
Sulser, Hafer and Patten also spoke of the need for the DBA to develop closer relationships with two other TIF districts in the city — the East Billings Urban Renewal District, which runs from the eastern edge of the central business district to MetraPark, and the South Billings Urban Renewal District, which is centered on South Billings Boulevard.