Featured: Giving Back to Beautify Billings

Featured Article:

Simply Family Magazine


November 1, 2019
by Rebecca Stewart

It’s easy to take for granted that which is always there. Take, for example, this community that we live in, this place that is literally nicknamed the Magic City. There are times when it’s all too easy to get caught up in the headlines, to get mired down in the negatives. Imagine, then, if we hit the pause button and really looked behind the scenes and actively sought the positives.

Perhaps you’ve seen, but not really paid attention to the various beautification efforts sweeping through Billings. It’s been an ongoing effort by many, and the fruits of that labor have become increasingly more visible. From vibrant murals and other public art pieces to the breathing of new life into old spaces and everything in between. Organizations, businesses, and individuals are going all in to make Billings a beautiful more vibrant place to live. We had the opportunity to chat with a few of those people, allowing us to give you a snapshot of some of those positives that you’ll surely want to seek out.

Downtown Billings

Molly Schiltz, Art and Culture Coordinator for the Downtown Billings Alliance (DBA), shared with us some of what’s happening throughout Downtown Billings. Though Molly’s position with the DBA is relatively new, there are projects tucked under her umbrella that have been ongoing for some time now, such as the Traffic Signal Box Wraps and the public sculptures found under Skypoint that are spreading out around the core. To help you intentionally discover these pieces of creativity (or to learn about submitting your art), check out https://downtownbillings.com/public-art for a map.

Traffic Signal Box Wraps – DBA

Perhaps you’ve seen murals brightening various walls and spaces around Billings. Some are the result of private building owners presenting the opportunity, others are the work of organizations and volunteers, meanwhile Molly has enthusiastically taken on an alley-scaping initiative. In listening to community members, she’s heard that people don’t feel the connectivity or the safety aspect of walking from, say, a parking garage to a business. Looking at other cities and seeing what they’ve done, she shares that “a lot of times public art and wayfinding and these physical sorts of markers can sort of make all the difference of people feeling connected, creating a cohesiveness throughout the city.”

Most recently, the DBA finished their first mural on the Pub Station. Molly explains that there are two different kinds of projects in play one of them on one side of the alley was a high school collaboration, working with a Graphic Design class at the Career Center that allowed them to showcase what makes them proud to be in Billings. On the south-facing wall, is a concept created by Molly. Oftentimes, Molly says she hears, “We’d love a mural, but we don’t so much want graffiti.” While she has a lot of respect for that art form and what that community has been doing downtown, people are ready to see some other things. And that’s the gear the DBA wants to get turning, ultimately facilitating that connectivity.

Pub Station Mural – DBA

The DBA’s role and primary goals are making sure that business owners, members of the community, and residents are proud of their Downtown and want to spend time there. It’s working to create a safe place, where the streets are clean, and there are things to do.

hidden gems:

  • Veronika’s Pastry Shop (2513 Montana Ave)
  • Montana Gallery (2710 2nd Ave North)
  • Up and Coming: Kirks’ Grocery (2920 Minnesota Ave) – “I am so floored by the poetry scene in Billings. We’ve got spoken word poets, slam poets, musicians; and they’re all collaborating there,” Molly Schiltz

Alberta Bair Theater

As you’re surely aware, the Alberta Bair Theater is currently undergoing a $12.5 million expansion and renovation that is expected to be completed in the fall of 2020. For a theater that first opened its doors in 1931 (then called The Fox Theater) and hasn’t had major improvements for 30 years, it was time. ABT’s executive director, Jan Dietrich explains that the equipment was outdated, and the theater was beginning to struggle with meeting technical requirements.

These renovations signal the embracing of a future that will allow ABT to continue to bring the best of Broadway musicals, dance, and theatre, as well as increasing the number of headlining music acts. Though the stage size will remain the same due to being landlocked by the alley, Jody Grant, ABT’s programming and marketing director notes that technical updates to rigging, sound, and lights will ensure the theater can meet the needs of the productions and artists who are touring with bigger, heavier shows.

For those of us who struggle with change, you’ll love learning that the historical detailing on the east side of the building will remain from its original 1931 Fox Theatre construction.

Theater goers can look forward to more spacious lobbies with an elevator, modern concessions, and more restrooms to better accommodate people with special needs. Upgraded seats will provide a more comfortable experience, along with more ADA seating, combined with the elevator, giving greater access to balcony seating. In a June 2, 2019 interview with Q2, Jan describes, “The windows throughout the building over the additional space [will] provide light into the space for patrons but also in the evening. When an event is happening people on the outside will be able to see, you know, what am I missing?”

CTA Architects Engineers rendering of the updated ABT at night – Alberta Bair Theater

s the largest performing arts venue in the region Alberta Bair Theater carries great impact in our community that includes being a boon to the local economy.

If you would like to be involved in these exciting renovations, the latest fundraising campaign kicked off late in October, which will include online opportunities.

Billings Chamber of Commerce

The Billings Chamber works tirelessly behind the scenes to help foster growth in our community, more specifically, they are “a catalyst for business growth, a convener of leaders and influencers and a champion for a thriving community,” says Director of Communications and Workforce Development, Kelly McCandless. To do that, the Chamber identifies “strategic priorities” that dictate their work plan based on issues the Chamber’s membership has requested focus. For example, 2019-2020 priorities are:

  • Elections Matter – we’re committed to electing business-friendly candidates who are job creators, problem solvers and community leaders.
  • Public Safety – together, we will enhance public safety by working directly with Billings businesses on strategies that will deter criminal activity.
  • ONE Big Sky District – the Strategy Partners are committed to the development plan, and the Billings Chamber will focus specifically on Montana Station Convention Center this year.
  • Air Service – the Chamber continues to support growth in air service through active guidance on the airport remodel and expansion as well as continued awareness and relationship building meetings with air service providers.
  • Workforce Development – the Chamber is the leader in growing and retaining workforce through leadership development programming. Additionally, the Chamber is exploring childcare needs as a potential solution to growing workforce issues.

3 things families should check out:

  1. The trail system – No matter the season, the trails offer a fantastic and safe way to get outside and explore!
  2. Wise Wonders Science and Discovery Museum – As Wise Wonders prepares to settle in at their new, larger location (3024 2nd Ave North) they will be able to offer even more experiences for kids of all ages.
  3. Art House and Babcock Theater – These venues offer a historic look at Billings while also providing quality experiences. Seeing a movie in either of these venues feels different and fun!

how can you get involved?

Supporting local businesses all year is certainly important, but don’t forget to shop small business on Small Business Saturday. Held this year on November 30, check in with www.simplyfamilymagazine.com for the day’s details. Kelly would remind us that “Small businesses are the backbone of our Chamber and our community. We encourage our membership to Shop Billings year ‘round!”

Billings Parks & Recreation

When you think of Billings Parks & Recreation probably your mind goes to the beautiful parks scattered across our city, the camps that keep our kids busy throughout the summer, the classes they run throughout the year. What you might not be as aware of are the special things happening in our parks and beyond as a result of the various community outreach and volunteer programs run via the Community Outreach Engagement Coordinator, Paul Reinhardt.

First, some numbers. In 2018 there were 1,584 volunteers who completed 6,035 hours of service!

These opportunities come in the form of Special Events like Arbor Day and Refresh the Rims. Volunteer Groups (churches, service clubs, athletic teams, corporate volunteers, and universities) make up the bulk of the projects that take place during the year. Their projects vary from painting structures and graffiti removal to planting trees and working at the community gardens. Special Projects, in 2019, the department worked with volunteers to coordinate the painting of the Shiloh Underpass Bike Tunnel, the painting of a mural at the Lillis Park Basketball Courts, and the installation and construction of a swingset at Central Park. Eagle Scout Projects have become an increasing part of the volunteer program. These projects have ranged from trail building to graffiti removal.

Amend Park – Billings Parks and Rec
Refresh the Rims – Billings Parks and Rec
Skatepark Graffiti Cleanup – Billings Parks and Rec

the more you grow:

Billings Parks & Recreation has some fruitful projects in the works that might not be on your radar just yet.

Parkland Gleaning Project – The garden program started this pilot project, funded by a $4,000 grant from Lucky’s Market with the purpose of increasing edible resources in the parks by planting fruit trees and shrubs. In total, 67 trees were planted in four parks by 118 volunteers and forestry staff. This program will continue to expand in 2020 thanks to a grant through HDR Foundation. The funding will provide for the purchase of 50 more fruit trees, along with the development and printing of informational brochures and installation of signage in fruit gleaning parks.

All of the trees that have been planted as part of this project have been GPS located and uploaded to fallingfruit.org, a nationwide map for urban foraging.

Community Gardens – The Amend Park Community Garden became rooted in the community in 2014. It began with 26 plots that harvested just over 700 pounds of produce in its first season. The Songbird Community Garden followed in 2017. In 2018, the two gardens served 78 households and produced over 8,000 pounds of produce! The gardens also donated 500 pounds to the Ronald McDonald House. In addition to the traditional community gardens, the parks department checked out 20 container gardens to households with limited mobility so they could enjoy the benefits of fresh, local produce.

If you would like to get in on some of these hands-on volunteering opportunities, go to: www.billingsparks.org/volunteer-opportunities.

speaking of growth:

If you spend any time on Billings’ West End, odds are you’ve noticed the massive project in the works at Centennial Park. City of Billings Parks and Recreation Park Planner, Mark Jarvis, PLA, walked us through some of the ins and outs of this major undertaking. The first Community Park to be built since the mid-1980s, this is big deal for a variety of reasons.

The park will include two large, open space areas for a wide range of activities and events, interior sidewalks for walking loops in and around the park, a year-round restroom, the second Dog Off Leash Area in Billings, and the four baseball diamonds will remain. The park has also been designated as an Arboretum and the City Forester will be working with volunteers to plant a wide variety of trees through the Trash For Trees recycling program.

Mark cautions us to temper our excitement for what’s to come with patience, as there will be a period of time called a “grow-in period” after for the park is built for the grass to grow and get established to withstand the use and activities that will take place in the park. It is anticipated that the park will be ready summer of 2020.

With 80% of Billings households owning at least one dog, the addition of another dog off leash space is vital. The Dog Off Leash Area will consist of six of the 23 total acres of the park. It will be fenced with two entry points and two drinking fountains. There will be a separate section for small dogs and an area for an agility course and training. It will be irrigated and seeded in turfgrass, with rolling topography for dogs to run and play off leash. The Friends of Billings Dog Parks Committee continues to raise funds for additional amenities, like shade structures, benches, and agility equipment.

As for those “future” spaces of the park, funding continues to be sought via a variety of sources to build the additional amenities called for on the park master plan. The Parks, Recreation, and Preservation Foundation (PRPF) is raising funds to provide a playground. Other areas still in need of funding are two additional parking lots, large and small shelters, a basketball/pickleball court, a splash pad, benches, and more trees.

Centennial Park: Design Development Revised Master Plan (Billings Gazette)

If you’re interested in helping to keep the progress moving, Mark shares that people are always welcome to donate toward the building of additional amenities, and/or they could volunteer to plant trees as well as assisting the PRPF in fundraising efforts.

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These are just a sampling of what’s currently going on in Billings. Whether you’re taking the time to actively appreciate all our community has to offer or you’re ready to lend a hand, be the good, seek the positive you wish to see in our place on the map. As Mr. Rogers famously said: When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”


Stewart, Rebecca. “Giving Back to Beautify Billings” Simply Family Magazine. 01 Nov. 2019