Downtown backers making best of a bad situation

Editor’s note: The editors of Noise & Color, Billings’ independent monthly magazine of culture and entertainment, asked me to write them a piece expanding on my recent column about downtown Billings, and the intense reaction to a certain column about the downtown that appeared in the Billings Gazette.

So I did, and I present it here in a slightly different form. The January issue of Noise & Color, in which this appears, hits the streets today. Make sure you pick up a copy.

Avenue

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

A view of Montana Avenue, looking east, during a slightly more pleasant time of year.

It’s been a strange couple of months for downtown Billings.

On one hand, there was so much good news: the Pub Station opened in the old bus depot, Commons 1882 opened in the old George Henry’s, the big new parking garage finally opened on Montana Avenue.

Businesses scrambling to open in the next few months include the Big Dipper (ice cream!) the Art House Cinema & Pub (independent movies, craft beer!) and Doc Harper’s (martinis!).

The downtown has recently seen or soon will see various other new businesses, housing projects and cultural offerings. But even more important—as anyone at all familiar with the downtown will tell you—is that there is a feeling in the air that our downtown is on the verge of great things, of becoming the kind of downtown you can’t wait to show off to your out-of-town friends.

On the other hand, so much bad news. Late in May, the Downtown Billings Alliance sponsored a forum that attracted a surprisingly large crowd of business owners and downtown residents, most of whom complained about what seemed like an unprecedented number of transients on the streets. Three weeks later, Mike Sample, a prominent photographer and philanthropist, was stabbed to death outside his office just off Montana Avenue.

Local media stayed on top of the issue through the summer and fall, publishing and broadcasting stories on public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, panhandling and violence in and around the downtown. There was more reporting on a two-day summit and a series of follow-up sessions at which city officials, business people, charitable groups and others attempted to define the problems and start working on long-term solutions.

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There was a lot of good reporting and it had to be done. Downtown business people might have wished there was less negative news emanating from the city center, but there was an acknowledgement that the problems had to be faced and grappled with if things were going to improve.

Then an even stranger thing happened. On Sunday, Dec. 14, Darrell Ehrlick, editor of the Billings Gazette, the state’s biggest bully pulpit and itself a major downtown employer, published a column about the situation downtown that had all the grace of—how shall I put this?—a transient with six high-gravity beers under his belt staggering around a china shop.

If Ehrlick had simply reminded people that despite the efforts underway much remained to be done, I can’t imagine there would have been a single objection. If he had taken city or downtown officials to task for specific shortcomings he might have been applauded. Hell, even if he had just said that he personally was damned sick of having his lunch strolls interrupted by drunks, even that might have gone over well enough.

But no. Ehrlick did none of those things. Instead, he wrote an article about the downtown being “the province of stumbling drunks,” of piles of puke and the “scent of fermenting urine,” a place where one would hesitate to bring a child, where a young woman would be afraid to walk alone.

There were a couple of vague calls to action in the column, but the overall impression it left was that someone new to Billings, someone unfamiliar with all the recent stories in the Billings Gazette, unaware that similar problems occur in hundreds of other downtowns, had just discovered some shocking, previously unreported problems in downtown Billings.

It was the clueless, heedless way that the points were made—and made during the most important stretch of the year for dozens of downtown small businesses—that sparked such a strong and immediate outcry.

The ringleader of the disaffected business people was Sean Lynch, who with his wife Ann Kosempa recently opened the Pub Station, the tavern and live music venue in the old bus depot. He pulled his own advertising from the Gazette and started a Facebook page called “Downtown Businesses against advertising in the Billings Gazette.”

The blowback was so strong that Ehrlick, and the Gazette’s publisher and advertising manager, scheduled a meeting with a group of downtown advertisers for Jan. 7.

Meanwhile, the rolling reaction to Ehrlick’s column has been fascinating to watch. I wrote a column pointing out the shortcomings of Ehrlick’s piece, which attracted dozens of comments, and many dozens more as it was shared on Facebook.

David Crisp, editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost, then weighed in, concurring with the low opinion of Ehrlick’s musings but advising against a boycott. Crisp’s main point was that he dislikes the idea of encouraging newspapers to tailor their opinions or coverage to suit the tastes of advertisers.

I agree with that sentiment, but this is not like some major advertiser calling the publisher and asking to have a story killed. This is a number of small businesses refusing to support an organization that seems to have zero interest in supporting them.

Regardless of what Crisp or I had to say, the important thing was how much discussion was suddenly being directed toward the downtown, toward solutions, and toward reminders of how much there was to like about downtown despite the problems. Some of the commenters seemed to think that people like Lynch were trying to pretend there was nothing wrong with the downtown, or that any problems should be ignored or swept under the rug.

I don’t think that’s true. People simply objected to Ehrlick’s blunderbuss opinionating, to the idea of gratuitously disparaging the downtown without suggesting anything constructive.

People even began to see a silver lining in the clouds over downtown. They said the Gazette column had the effect of riling up business owners, of making them aware of how deeply committed they were to making the downtown work, how much they want to help achieve their shared vision for this part of town. The Gazette deserves no gratitude for that, but it is nice to see people trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Where does that leave the rest of us—those who live, work, dine, drink and entertain ourselves downtown? I think the main thing we can do is remind as many people as possible as often as we can how much the downtown has to offer. It has almost all the good restaurants in town, the best live music, the theaters, museums, a great coffeeshop at Second and Broadway (where I am writing this), all but one of the microbreweries, the coolest shops, the only co-op grocery store.

It also has transients, as does any city in America that deserves to be thought of as a city. But the sad truth is that they are mostly a danger to themselves and their brethren of the street. I have spent the past 25 years working downtown and the past 18 months living right downtown and I have never felt threatened by street people.

For that matter, some of the problems blamed on transients—getting back to Ehrlick’s puke and urine—are quite possibly the work of hammered young hotheads leaving the handful of city-center bars at closing time. Those who suffer most from transients are the business owners who are downtown all day and deal with the same annoyances over and over again.

Beyond that, we can all stay informed of the work being done to find humane, civilized solutions to the problems bedeviling the downtown. If I had a few more pages I could tell you about those efforts, but you can stay informed by reading the Gazette, the Outpost and LastBestNews. Support the organizations and the businesses working day in and day out to make this a better place. Volunteer, donate, keep up the pressure on elected officials to see this thing through.

Just don’t give up on the downtown. We need you.

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