The other day I was walking home from a meeting when I happened past the abandoned shell of what was once the Good Earth Market Co-op. A co-op that sold organic tomatoes, bison steaks, kombucha. The building has been vacant now since fall 2017—the outside is covered in graffiti.
It struck me, staring at the building, just how much it serves as a metaphor for the state of Billings’ downtown. There is so much passion in this community, especially among the “young” people, so much artistry that keeps spilling over—paint on the side of a building, unauthorized flyers tacked up downtown, the farmer’s market busker (aka my brother). But right now so much of this artistry, this passion—it doesn’t have anywhere else to go.
In the last 6 years I have seen countless businesses come and go from the downtown. They struggle to make rent. Foot traffic is light. Public safety is, as ever, an issue. Lots of people want to live downtown but can’t afford luxury lofts. These are real, chronic problems in the city, problems that contributed to the co-op closing its doors. The doors closed, leaving our neighborhood with a single grocery store farther away, across a busy street—some would say these are just the breaks of the free market. But I see it slightly differently.
I think it’s tempting to believe that the “public” and “private” sectors are completely different spheres, that the fault of a co-op closing lies solely with the free market, with management, with demand. But that discounts the reality that Good Earth Market existed on a public road, paying public utilities; it existed in a downtown that hasn’t seen major revitalizing development in 33 years, a downtown with next-to-nothing in the way of affordable housing. One co-op could not possibly change all of these contributing factors, yet it was affected by ALL of them.
The health of our downtown IS the health of our city—the Billings downtown core generates the bulk of the city’s revenue. Billings downtown is how the city pays for police and firemen and new water treatment plants on the west end. The state that it’s in—so much vacant commercial real estate, lack of living options—has real, tangible impacts on the businesses that carry the financial weight of Billings’ future. As a community we must listen to what these leaders are telling us—major downtown revitalization is non-negotiable. It’s the foundation that provides financial security for the rest of the city.
Okay but so what does any of this have to do with City Council?you may be wondering. Well, I’m so glad you asked. City Council votes on every single one of the issues I’ve described. They vote to decide if Billings will allow private investment from out of state (a la One Big Sky District) to massively invest in our downtown; they vote on police and firemen budgets. Snowplowing, recreation services, grass-mowing. If a developer wants to build a whole street of tiny, affordable homes on the south side, City Council would have to rubber stamp the zoning change. Just like they decide if you can have chickens or pigs in your backyard, or if a micro-brewery can open on the west end of town. I know! City Council has its fingers in ALL the pies.
Looked at individually, most of these issues seem tiny. Relative to the bigger ones in our lives—money, health, kids—they *are*, so it’s easy to think they don’t really matter. Who really cares all that much about snowplowing? Water treatment plants? Whether baby Violet can open a bakery in an abandoned church? The problem is that these small decisions add up—they accumulate in mass over time and this accumulation is what forms a city’s reputation.
We know this from looking at other cities: are they known for being ‘green’ or ‘eco-conscious’? Then the equivalent of their City Council is probably voting for things like more trails, energy conservation, expanded parks, and city-wide recycling. Are they known for being ‘artsy’ and ‘vibrant’? Then the City Council has probably been instrumental in zoning or re-zoning venues, pop-up concerts; approving fancy plumbing to artist studios; prioritizing affordable housing. Most of this work is behind-the-scenes, it’s the guts of the city. It’s not about raising taxes, it’s about about policies and priorities that then play out on the daily stage of our lives.
Each election we get to choose what we want our city’s reputation to be going forward. We get to choose if we’re satisfied with the status quo or if, looking around, we think things could be better. I do. This election is the fight for major downtown revitalization and public safety. A fight for a prosperous, vibrant, livable downtown that will power the entire city.