New plan for downtown Billings unveiled Tuesday

Skypoint

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The building of Skypoint, in the heart of downtown Billings, grew out of a suggestion in the 1997 Downtown Billings Framework Plan to establish a “defining element.”

Next week, a little more than 20 years after the completion of the Downtown Billings Framework Plan, an updated, overhauled version of that document will be unveiled at a public meeting.

The new Downtown Strategic Plan, the product of a year’s worth of work by Billings residents and a consulting firm from Indianapolis, will be made public Tuesday at 8 a.m. in the Royal Johnson Community Room of the Billings Public Library.

That evening, at a City Council work session, the plan will be presented to the City Council, which approved the use of $80,000 in tax increment financing to pay the consultant, Thomas P. Miller & Associates.

The public meeting at the library will also be Katy Easton’s formal introduction as the new chief executive officer of the Downtown Billings Alliance. She began her duties three weeks ago, following the departure of longtime director Lisa Harmon.

Easton sat down Thursday to talk about the new strategic plan — without spilling the beans on what they said will be some exciting announcements. With her was Maisie Sulser, a Billings architect who is temporarily serving as the DBA’s development director, following the recent retirement of Greg Kreuger.

The concepts they will introduce Tuesday are unlikely to be a big surprise, Easton said, “but we have some new steps, some really doable action items. I think that’s what’s going to be really exciting.”

“I think there’s something in there that anybody can get excited about,” Sulser added.

The Framework Plan that was completed at the end of 1997 represented the first major effort to come up with a blueprint for the entire downtown, so it contains what may seem now to be an inordinate emphasis on very basic things, including the “kit of parts.” That was the trendy name for the lights, benches, kiosks and other streetscape features designed to give the downtown a unified feel.

Most of that work has been done, as has a lot of redevelopment and new construction funded with tax increment money. At a community forum on the new strategic plan last fall, Harmon said that in the 20 years since creation of the Framework Plan, almost 300 downtown tax increment financing projects were completed, totaling almost $300 million.

Easton said the Framework Plan worked so well that it just made sense, after 20 years, to update it so its achievements could continue. Or, as Sulser said, “We’ll just take everything that’s so wonderful and reorganize it and give it new life.”

Having the plan come to completion now, at a time of new leadership at the DBA, is a happy coincidence, Easton said, because it will give her and the organization a roadmap, new marching orders, something they can use to measure success.

Work on the new plan began more than a year ago. In addition to meeting with the steering committee and DBA boards, the consultants organized focus groups that looked at infrastructure, entrepreneurship, downtown identity, public art, “NextGen,” economic development, multimodal streets and American Indian culture, heritage and services.

There were also interviews with individuals, walking tours and the community forum in October, which attracted 150 people.

One subject that got a lot of attention in the old plan and will again in the new is downtown housing, Sulser said, which is a key to so many other aspects of downtown development. When she’s asked about what sort of plans there are to entice more retail stores to the downtown, Sulser said, she mentions the importance of more housing, including workforce housing.

“We feel like those just go hand in hand,” she said. “Downtown living is still a big piece of this.”

“And I think this plan lays out some great ideas for making that happen,” Easton said.

Easton and Sulser said the new plan is also, in a way, a means of reaching out beyond the downtown and appealing to more than the people who already appreciate and are familiar with the city center.

Part of that means working more closely with two entities that didn’t exist when the Framework Plan was created — the East Billings Urban Renewal District and the South Billings Urban Renewal District. Easton said the DBA would like to collaborate with those two districts when deciding what sorts of proposed projects are best suited for which parts of town.

“We’ve come to the understanding that we aren’t competing,” Easton said.

“It’s about downtown, but it’s really about Billings,” Sulser said of the new plan. “It’s about downtown being a platform for the whole community.”

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