Construction has started just above the Lockwood Interchange off Coburn Road in Lockwood for Montana’s first Camping World. Dirt and dust are flying on an 11.4 acre parcel that parallels Interstate 90 in preparation of building a new location for Camping World, touted to be “America’s largest retailer of RVs and related products and services.”

K2 Construction of Billings is in the process of preparing the property for the construction of a 32,280 square foot -building which will accommodate the sales, rentals and servicing of recreational vehicles. Stores also typically sell all the accessories, products and tools that support RVers.

The new store will join 185 Camping World locations in 40 states across the country and it will be the first in Montana. The website indicates that it will be completed by the end of 2022.

Camping World Holdings, Inc., is headquartered in Lincolnshire, IL. The company, headed by CEO, Marcus Lemonis, has been in business since 1966.

Also under the Camping World Holdings umbrella is the Good Sam organization the nation’s largest RV club, providing members with roadside service and trip planning and programs that “uniquely enables us to connect with our customers as stewards of the RV enthusiast community and the RV lifestyle.”

By Evelyn Pyburn

It’s working far beyond their greatest expectations.

Adaptive Performance Center (APC) at 1420 Broadwater in Billings was opened two years ago as a gym aimed at melding physical exercise with mental health, a magic elixir that its founders discovered works for military veterans. APC is available to help disabled veterans in overcoming their injuries, and for other veterans seeking a haven in dealing with the stress of everyday life, and for active military keeping in shape and wanting to enjoy the company of like-minded people.

APC started as a new idea with no guidelines or guarantees or members. It’s been a challenge in finding how to best operate the facility, determine policies and resolve problems as they have manifested themselves. Today the non-profit organization has almost 500 members and “we see magic happen every single day,” says co-founder Karen Pearson.

So successful has APC been that “it makes us feel we can’t open more gyms fast enough,” said Pearson and co-founder Mitch Crouse. Opening a second location is exactly their plan. Before the year is out they hope to have an APC gym in Helena. Everything is in place, except for closing on the property. They expect to be able to open within nine months after that.

Helena has the second highest population of veterans in Montana after Billings. Both communities’ population is 10 to 13 percent veterans. In Billings that’s about 13,000 people.

APC is the vision of Karen Pearson, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Certified Personal Trainer, and Mitch Crouse, a Certified Personal Trainer. In each of their experiences in providing physical training for people, who have had traumatic situations to deal with, they realized that physical exercise was hugely beneficial in that process. As Crouse frequently reiterates, “Move your body, heal your mind.”

Crouse learned that reality first-hand in struggling to recover from a severe injury he suffered in a car accident. Pearson recognized the connection in dealing with patients who were veterans trying to integrate back into families and adapt to regular life after serving in the military. She saw them struggle with PTSD and knew those, who believing there was no hope, committed suicide. Recognizing how greatis their challenge, she became dedicated to somehow find a way to help them – having a gym became the goal.

The effectiveness of APC is exceeding anything the duo ever imagined. “Every week we have people who achieve some physical or mental or personal goal,” says Pearson.

The gym is almost a “front” for helping the veterans get the support and connection with other veterans and military people that they need, explains Pearson. And, often it just happens, as they regularly attend to work out. The gym becomes a safe and comfortable place for them, where they find others who understand.

Pearson and Crouse relate about one day, not long after opening, that a Vietnam veteran came in and signed up, and then sat down in the general lobby area, which is furnished with inviting easy chairs and couches and coffee tables. A little later, a younger veteran of Desert Storm came in and joined him. And, shortly thereafter, there arrived a young woman currently serving in the National Guard, and she, too, sat down and joined in the conversation. The three of them talked for almost an hour as though they had always known each other. “They didn’t have to know each other,” said Pearson, “They all understood what they were talking.about”

Pearson and Crouse see things like that unfold all the time.

They enjoy their members and have discovered them to be “some of the most honest people….They are funny, knowledgeable, very smart and as strong as oxen, both physically and mentally, which is amazing considering the things they have to deal with or have seen,” enthused Pearson.

There are moments that Pearson’s experience as a mental health counselor is crucial. Every once in a while a client has a meltdown, and it is important to know how to handle such situations. Part of developing APC is in the experiences that occur and developing the protocols necessary, so that all the staff knows what to do. Besides Crouse and Pearson, APC employs two other supporters – Richard Shepard, manager; and Andrea Wright, Board President.

As they move into opening additional centers, it will be the experiences and practices that they learn at APC in Billings and the training and protocols they develop that they will introduce as standards of practice for all their centers.

They are being asked to locate centers in other areas of the state, but they hope their next expansion will be to locations outside Montana. People in Colorado Springs have an interest in opening an APC and so does another group in Hampton Roads, VA. Representatives from both locations have been to Billings to tour the APC facility.

Crouse said that in choosing the communities in which they will locate they will look at the capacity of the community to support a gym and the passion and commitment they see in the people involved.

Anyone who has their D2-14 discharge papers can join ACP. It doesn’t matter where or when or how they served, they simply have to have served. The cost is $19.95 a month, but no one is turned away because of inability to pay. In fact, APC has numerous individuals, businesses and organizations, who have will pay the dues of anyone who can’t afford to do so – people like The Breakfast Flakes and others who simply walk in the door, hand them a cash gift card and say “please use this to help pay somebody’s membership.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield has a standing community match offer. Other companies too match any donation their employees make.

Between 35 and 40 percent of their members depend on such contributions, and they are very appreciative. One veteran who had to depend on a “scholarship”, got himself on his feet and started a business and is now contributing to support the dues for others.

They also get other generous gifts which have allowed them to expand and add more equipment to the gym.

Their membership range in age from 17 to 88 years. The teenagers are recruits  who are “delayed entry candidates” for boot camp. The Air Force, the Army and the Marines have engaged APC to do physical training for the recruits while they are waiting to go to boot camp. Crouse says with obvious satisfaction, that they hear back from their trainees that boot camp is easy compared to the training at APC.

Not only have they found great support from the local offices of the military, but also the various service organizations that provide support for veterans have discovered that APC is good place through which to reach out to veterans.

Crouse said that they hope to establish a foundation for the center to cover its basic needs on an on-going basis. The biggest cost in opening a center is in getting it established. Getting a location, purchasing the equipment, etc.

After that the costs become less and remain steady.

During their “spare” time, Pearson and Crouse have been involved in helping in producing a documentary about the suicide rate among veterans. It focuses on showing civilians “how amazing our veterans really are.” It aims to help civilians understand what the veterans have seen and have experienced and how “gut wrenching” their memories are. But more importantly, the film explains what people can do to help. There is so much that people can do, said Pearson, and it can be done locally. The biggest problem is in finding the veterans who don’t know that there is help.

More details about the premier of the documentary will soon be available. Premiers will be held in several Montana communities including Billings.

Last week, two representatives of the real estate business approached Yellowstone County Commissioners about whether the county has vacant land that might be dedicated to addressing the affordable housing situation in Yellowstone County.

With most subdivision developments, state law requires that developers donate a portion of the project to the public for potential open space or park development. Most often those parcels are not developed and simply sit as vacant land. Two of Billings’ veteran real estate brokers, Tom Llewelyn and Bob Leach, are hoping that some of those dedicated parcels might be made available to become the basis of a community land trust (CLT).

Following a series of forums in which the Billings real estate industry scrutinized the housing crisis the community faces, CLTs emerged as a possible solution. “It’s one of the best tools we have,” said Llewelyn.

If we don’t get housing where people can afford it, we aren’t going to bring the 40,000 new workers to replace retiring babyboomers or workers at new businesses in the TEDD or hospital workers, said Llewelyn. A couple weeks ago Leach announced that in order to meet its housing needs, Billings and the surrounding area must build about 2000 living units (single family houses, condos, duplexes, etc.) a year.

Since the 1960s, CLT’s are increasingly being used to address housing affordability issues that plague many communities across the country.   They are currently operating in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

A CLT is the establishment of a private non-profit that holds land and preserves land affordability. While there are several examples of such trusts in the state there are none in Billings. There are CLTs in Missoula, Kalispell, Red Lodge, Bozeman and Big Sky, etc. Across the state there are about 200 CLT homes.

Llewelyn suggested that there may be some county-owned property that could be donated to a land trust  — “maybe in Shepherd or Huntley.” The city has a few similar parcels and so does Laurel, said Llewelyn, adding that they have also had discussions with the Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) about land in the area under that agency’s authority.  One unused DNRC property is near Castle Rock School. “It’s a good piece of land,” said Llewelyn, but it is sandstone and structures would have to be built on piers.

Any DNRC project and land donation would have to be approved by the Montana Land Board.

Commissioners had questions about how large a parcel must be and what a lease would look like. They pointed out that typically the land donated to the county by developers is not very conducive to development, which is why they chose to donate those parcels.

Llewelyn said that a parcel could be useable even if it would accommodate only five or six homes – “it doesn’t have to be 160 acres.” The lease would likely be able to be structured to meet whatever the county would like. Leases typically run for 60 or 70 years and some 99 years.

During one of the housing forums, it was explained that CLTs have proven to be a creative solution to keeping prices down for low to moderate income home buyers. It is an alternative to renting that allows the owners within a CLT to build equity toward independent home ownership and to be able to qualify for a loan.

In a CLT the house or buildings on a property are owned and traded separately from the land. The trust owns the land with the homeowner entering into a long-term land lease, varying from 75 to 99 years. Homeowners usually pay a monthly fee for amenities, a fee which is normally around $40 a month.

The ground lease makes sure the home is well maintained and preserves the community assets.

The homeowners own the home and earn limited equity. The arrangement reduces the purchase price of a home. Not having to pay for a lot that might cost between $75,000 to $100,000, quite obviously reduces the cost. The CLT serves well in many other capacities. It gives owners an opportunity to become educated about home ownership and learning about stewardship, while growing their wealth.

The owner can only sell to someone else whose income qualifies them to be able to purchase within the CLT – an income which is about 80 percent of the median income – about $61,000 in the Billings area. The CLT retains the right of first refusal in the sale, in order to buy back the property in case of default.

The legitimacy of property rights within a CLT have been verified through the courts and are accepted as sound investments by lenders. In fact, depending on how it is set up a CLT could reduce risk to a lender, making it all the more attractive as an investment.

The CLTs can be developed and established in numerous ways, with initial investment being acquired through the contribution of public land, donations from private organizations, grants, etc. They are administered by a stand-alone organization whose goal is to maintain the financial stability of the trust.

By Evelyn Pyburn

One thing about aging – events can become more meaningful and gain greater perspective. I find that is true regarding the Montana Constitution of 1972.

I was a pretty young reporter when the whole Con-Con event unfolded. I interviewed those who ran as delegates and followed the issues as a reporter for the weekly newspaper for which I worked, and then did follow up on the issues that seemed to be the most relevant changes, interviewing experts involved in those issues. I mostly just absorbed what I encountered, which has become more significant in importance as I look back.

I recently read where former Supreme Court Justice James Nelson called the revised state constitution the most “progressive” constitution in the country. It might be that. It would have very good reason to be. In interviewing the Con-Con delegates during the campaign to gain voter approval of the new document, some of the delegates gave a blow by blow account of their experience. I found perplexing some of what I heard about how the process unfolded and what governed it.

It was governed by the League of Women Voters. The whole issue of whether Montana needed to revise its Constitution came primarily from the Left. The League of Women Voters were the leaders of the movement – a group every bit as progressive then as now.

Now I don’t know how you might envision a constitutional convention to be conducted once launched, but I imagined the delegates sitting down with a copy of the Montana Constitution and perhaps a bunch of law books and other legal references within easy access. I imagined that the document would be broken down into segments and different “committees” who would tackle each part, with deep discussions and bantering about of ideas. There would be disputes, of course, to be aired publically, and eventually settled by a consensus of the body as a whole.

But that wouldn’t be quite right. There was little public discussion. And, I was told by the delegates that when they came to the table, placed before each seat was not only a copy of the Montana Constitution but also a “Model Constitution” produced by the League of Cities and Towns. It was that document that set the parameters of discussion, so it shouldn’t be the least surprising that the new Constitution would be “progressive”.

Now I must admit that not many people seemed perplexed by that table arrangement, but it left me in open-mouthed amazement. As young and naïve as I was, even I understood the flagrant bias of it. I knew the process was not as grassroots as everyone was being led to believe. One has to know that the League of Cities and Towns is a very “progressive” organization. The organization is totally dedicated to “improving” the function of government — advocating centralized, top –down controls even while giving lots of lip service to local control.

From what the delegates related to me, there was no corresponding materials provided regarding civil liberties , or what is necessary to secure and protect them, or even of what rights are. While some of the delegates were troubled about the process, others were not and they glowed with great satisfaction about what they had accomplished.

That there was little interest in the process should have been no surprise. Few things have been so totally heralded as the Second Coming as was Montana’s new Constitution. It was a complete whitewash in most of the media. While there was much written about the glory of it all, and much ado about voting for it – there was very little probing into the details. While the weekly publication I worked for sought out knowledgeable people about everything from taxes to water rights, medicine to transportation, hunting to education – it was very limited reporting compared to what one would have expected all of media to have been focused upon.

My full realization of how starved the public was for information, only came when an auxiliary group with which I worked, published a booklet which focused on the proposed Constitution. There had been so little information about it that we were bombarded with requests for copies of it from all over the state. We had to do a second printing. I most vividly remember delivering a box of the second printing to the Baxter Hotel in Bozeman. It was early evening and as I entered the lobby, a small crowd that had been waiting for the delivery, descended upon me. I was astounded. I heard comments all around me from people indicating the many communities who were anxiously awaiting copies of our booklet.

So indeed, Supreme Court Justice James Nelson is probably accurate in describing the Montana Constitution as the most “progressive” in the country, but I don’t know that that is anything to brag about given the antithesis of progressiveness to liberty. One thing’s for sure, another Constitutional Convention would not unfold so indifferently and casually today – so maybe that’s “progress.”

“We are in a real crisis on affordability,” said Bob Leach, a veteran real estate professional, about Yellowstone County’s housing situation.

Billings will have to build 2000 new residential units a year to climb out of this housing abyss that has been many years in the making, according to Leach, in presenting data that forecasts another 14 percent increase in housing prices in 2022. Leach has been involved in the local housing market for 45 years as a real estate agent and owner of a property management company.

The housing situation is dire, especially in how it is impacting workforce housing. “We have already excluded about 26 percent of the population from the affordability range of home ownership,” said Leach. It’s not that housing prices aren’t having an impact on low-income, said Leach, but while there are programs aimed at helping the low-income, there are none for the middle income.

Workforce housing is the range of housing that is affordable by those earning between 80 and 120 percent of the area’s medium household income of $61,264, which affords them a housing price range of $245,000 and $367,000.

The medium sales price of a house in Yellowstone County is $310,000 and the average price is $351,000. If a 12-14 percent projected price increase for 2022 holds true, the medium sales price could reach $356,000 and the average price could be as high as $400,000 in Yellowstone County.

The prospects of a housing shortage began as long ago as 2005, when abruptly the number of building permits in Billings for residential units (not including commercial apartment buildings) dropped dramatically. City residential building permits are down 38.5 percent from the six year average prior to the financial crisis of 2008, when compared to the most recent six year history.  “We have been underbuilding for a long time,” said Leach.

The average yearly number of permits for the six years prior to 2008 was 676. Between 2009 and 2021 the average yearly number of permits was 415. County residential electrical permits for new construction are estimated at 278 for 2021

During that 12 year period Yellowstone County continued to grow at an average rate of 1,650 people a year. There’s been new businesses drawing new employees and Billings has become an attractive choice for transplants from other states.

Coming to the conclusion that it will take 2000 new housing units to replenish Billings’ housing needs is based on very conservative projections, said Leach. Meeting just the average, normal growth in population, assuming an average of 2.4 people per household, will require 683 new units, which by itself is considerably more than the average number of building permits being issued annually in Billings at 415.

Leach looked at the retiring babyboomers, who will require 40,000 replacement workers. That’s a huge demand for new housing even if half the babyboomers move south, which is not likely. Assuming two-income households that poses a need for 416 new residences.

Because of housing costs, a record number of 18-29 years olds are living with their parents – 52 percent compared to the last peak right after the Great Depression when 48 percent lived with their parents. Should only ten percent of that age group be able to afford to purchase a home that would require 427 more dwelling units.

Leach said it is hard to project how many people are moving to Montana to escape the big cities. In 2021 Montana had the highest net inflow per capita at 73 percent, usurping the former lead city – Boise, Idaho. Last year it is estimated that 13,000 people moved to Montana from San Francisco. Leach doesn’t expect the trend to change anytime soon so he estimated that about 250 new dwellings will be needed to meet that demand.

And it will take 225 units per year just to meet the current shortage. Housing inventory or the number of properties listed for sale is currently at an unheard-of three week supply, when a normal inventory is four months.

Other points that Leach makes that are factors impacting local housing:

—Montana had a record number of business start ups in 2021. It broke the record by 11,000 new businesses which is “phenomenal.”

— Montana, and most especially Billings, have record low unemployment rates.

—The average selling price of a home in Billings last year was $8,700 higher than the listing price.

—While the number of new housing starts has dropped, those that are being built at aimed at the high end market.

—Unfulfilled health care jobs can be in large- part attributed to housing shortages. A hospital in Bozeman did a survey which revealed that 30 percent of their employees are living in camper trailers.

—Leech said “we need smaller houses,” and a change in community attitude that says “not in my backyard.” In 1925 the average home had 275 sq. ft. per person, now it is near 1000 sq. ft. There is a market for tiny homes, he said.

Two summits were held over the past few months focused on the housing issues of Yellowstone County. They identified as barriers restricting response to the market as over-regulation,  shortage of skilled workers, supply chain issues, not enough land ready for development, market mismatch in that high end buyers are competing for materials for lower end markets. High land cost means a need for higher density and smaller lot sizes, and there needs to be a political will for stakeholders to work together to develop innovative solutions.

The groups involved in the summits which includes the Billings Realtors Association, Big Sky Economic Development, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, School District 2, City College, Reach Higher Montana, have identified some strategies, including Student and parent opportunity awareness, development and enhancement of the trades program, support summer jobs for the trades.

They also aim to reduce development impediments by engaging the builders with city regulators, enhance infrastructure, use tax increment financing and seek state incentive programs.

To develop builder incentives to build affordable construction is also one of their strategies, as is developing sites for both modular and manufactured homes. To increase condo and hometown development, expand shared spaces and to develop expandable construction are also part of the strategy.

They also plan to pursue innovative ideas such as developing Montana land trusts, housing coops, enhance panelized construction, mixed use development incentive, and to pursue enhanced financing options.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The Big Sky Business Journal is celebrating 40 years in business this year.

The Big Sky Business Journal was the first stand-alone business publication in the state and it came at a time when business news was kind of a new idea. Up until then, other than the Wall Street Journal and Barron’s, there wasn’t much attention given to business news by media. I recall one journalist, totally surprised that we talked to business people for news, asking, “How can you do that? They are so self-serving?”

I was surprised that he didn’t know that most people are self-serving. But, he revealed in that statement much of what was to come in journalism, and a realization that bias in media isn’t something new; it’s been building for a long time. He reflected a pervasive lack of understanding that pursuing self-interest and having the ability to do so is the engine that drives not only economic success but innovation and a wealth generation that is beyond imagination.

So it is that being a business owner has taught me many things, but being able to get to know others in business in Montana has been a great privilege. Nothing could reveal more what incredibly great people there are in our state. Self-serving or not, they first and foremost serve their communities in so many ways that whatever they gain for themselves is hugely earned and just, and we would be sorely lost without them.

Looking back over the years reveals a lot of ups and downs and one is reminded that no matter how bad one moment may seem, just hang on and it will get better.

When we started business it turned out to be one of the worst times possible to start a business. It turned out that Billings was headed into one of the worst economic declines in its history. It was the oil-bust of the ‘80s.

We never quite realized what a boom the oil business had been for Billings until it started to deflate. What a contrast. Billings was brimming with the enthusiasm and success of the booming oil fields. Young professionals from every part of the economy were here participating in one way or another in the boom. Billings was headquarters for a lot of different oil companies and transportation companies. New cars and new homes and new office buildings spoke loudly about the economic well-being of Billings. Retail stores and shopping malls bustled with activity. Late every afternoon was a celebration at crowded happy-hour bars and fine dining restaurants. Everywhere it was apparent that Billings was boomng.

And, then suddenly it wasn’t. All those bright and engaging professionals were packing up their families and moving to Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and some were moving to other countries where oil field jobs still existed. Going-away parties became the social events of the day. So many were moving that one could look up and down any given residential street in Billings and see several moving trucks being loaded.  It felt like Atlanta burning. The community was infused with a sadness. Many businesses closed and others were doing a belt-tightening that probably laid the foundation for some of best and strongest companies that we have today.

But it was also a great time to be starting a business. The computer age was emerging.  Today, it is very easy to forget the huge boost that computers and improved communications gave to small businesses. In so many ways it put mom-and-pop businesses on a par with big businesses. Suddenly supplies and materials and services were available from across the country and around the world, bringing down prices and increasing opportunities and introducing entrepreneurs to current product information and other vital industry and market information in a timely manner that had never been experienced before.

Computerization over time has pulled Montana into the mainstream of business activity in the country. When the Big Sky Business Journal began business, one of the biggest economic discussions going on was how disconnected Montana was from the rest of the world and what an impediment that posed to attracting business and doing business with other parts of the country. While that remains something of a problem, it’s not the issue it was. In fact, as we are seeing today, Montana’s remoteness coupled with the improved communications available today has become a positive that is attracting people to the state because they can enjoy both the lifestyle and the work-at- home employment opportunities.

Having our own business has given us a wonderful flexibility in life, in life-style choices and in being able to raise our children in a very hands-on way, which has been wonderful. It has also given us a unique opportunity to be part of the community and to know so many wonderful people who make Yellowstone County a great place to live. For this we say thank you to all our advertisers and subscribers and other supporters. It couldn’t have happened without you.

By Evelyn Pyburn

It all comes down to the conclusion that “we know better.” We know better than the general run-of-the-mill taxpayer rube.

That attitude by public officials at every level of government is one with which we have all become far too familiar.  Such has been the attitude of many city officials over the years, as they pursued what they absolutely knew was illegal, and was an act hugely disrespectful of the citizens they were supposed to serve and represent.  And, most amazingly, which some still continue to hold as they drag out a costly legal battle over the illegal franchise fee, to absolutely no worthy end.

That the city lost the suit filed against them is totally just. It’s a shame more individuals couldn’t be held personally responsible for what they perpetrated upon the community.  Again, we see what happens when individuals are not held accountable for their actions and choices.

It is indeed a no-win situation that the taxpayers must pay, no matter the outcome of the case, so let’s make sure that there is at least a “win” in demonstrating what justice looks like and underscoring the honest role of government. Since it is going to “cost” no matter what, the court should make the city responsible to reimburse ratepayers as a statement of culpability of all those involved.

Perhaps they thought there was a great need for revenues for the city and believed that taxpayers would reject a mill levy. It is true that a majority of the public can be wrong, but sooner or later they get it right. True statesmen know that, accept it, and have respect for the process and the public.

It is not the role of leadership to find ways to sidestep the people and to attempt to dupe them. It is to try to lead them to what one believes is the right answers and to accept the electorate’s conclusion at the polls. 

The average citizen may indeed lag behind issues and may not be fully informed and unaware of political gamesmanship, but in the long run they have a better track record of understanding than do the dictates of the politicians and power seekers. It is often, in fact, that understanding that the elitists most abhor.

Given the opportunities the city had to lessen the harm to the taxpayers, which they rejected, and the fact that the farce continues still, demands loud and clear condemnation from the court. There were good people inside and outside of city government, from the very beginning, who said that this was an illegal tax. Over the years, the plaintiffs voiced many times their concerns, before being forced to file suit. And, even after filing suit, understanding the imposition to taxpayers, they offered to drop it for $20,000 and a statement from City officials to never do it again. Arrogance again prevailed, and city officials and their attorneys rejected that offer, as well as similar opportunities to minimize harm to taxpayers. And, so the case continues, today, mounting millions of dollars in greater attorney fees.

The court has already decreed that which the city would not affirm: that they won’t do it again, but for the court to require some degree of restitution will say loudly and clearly that which MUST be said, that this kind of government cannot be allowed to stand. It will say that city officials SERVE THE PEOPLE, and that even when administrators, bureaucrats and elected politicians believe they are smarter than the general public, they must still bow to the public. It’s called the democratic process.

This is a moment in time, that justice and the rule of law demands that those who believe themselves to be above the law to be totally castigated for their deceit and for their disdain of the citizens of Billings.

Last Friday, December 10, part of the Heights Water District Board filed suit against itself.

Chairman of the board, Dennis Cook and board members Jeff Engel and Brandon Hurst, and a district citizen filed suit in 13th District Court against “County Water District of Billings Heights” with the claim that their meeting on November 29, 2021 “was not in conformance with its operating rules and without providing proper notice”, as stipulated by state law.

The complaint also states that the board failed to provide the public and the citizen- complainant in the suit, Tom Zurbuchen, with an agenda for the meeting which would have “enabled him to participate in the public meeting.”

The summons demands a jury trial and asks the judge to void any actions taken at the November 29 meeting and to require the defendant to pay for costs of the suit and legal fees.

The meeting at issue is a special meeting that was called by the other four board members, a quorum of the board, Ming Cabrera, David Graves, Laura Drager and Pam Ellis, to deal with issues that had crucial deadlines, which they hadn’t been able to accomplish at the regular monthly meeting on November 17, because of a lack of a quorum. They failed to have a quorum partly because board member, Laura Drager, was intimidated into not attending because of an email she received from Zurbuchen, just shortly before the meeting. Another three board members did not attend following failed attempts to cancel the meeting because of disagreements about agenda items.

At the November 29 meeting, Zurbuchen challenged the legality of holding it claiming it was not posted on the district’s website. He read a note from the board president, Dennis Cook, saying that the three absent board members also did not consider it a legal meeting. 

Ellis explained that efforts to post the meetings and documents on the district’s website were thwarted when the staff refused to post it. She said that it was posted elsewhere which was adequate by state law requirements.

At the special meeting a quorum of board members removed Cook and Hurst from their leadership positions and elected in their place Ming Cabrera as President and David Graves as Vice President. The board members in attendance, who voted unanimously to replace the officers, said that they were doing so because those board members had not attended meetings and they were taking actions that did not involve the entire board.

Cook hand delivered a letter to the County Commissioners asking them to remove Ellis, the county’s appointee, from the board. The District’s assistant general manager, Peyton Brookshire, also met with county commissioners, appealing to them to intervene in the board’s disputes. In general the commissioners do not view that they have such authority and have not taken any action.

At the special meeting, the board passed new bylaws and approved a job description for the general manager. The district’s general manager of 19 years, Duke Nieskens, retires on December 20 and the board has advertised for applicants to fill the position.  Assistant manager Peyton Brookshire will be acting manager. To have a new manager hired by the end of the year is among the items of business that the board will likely be delayed in achieving because of lacking a quorum at their regular meeting.

The next meeting of the Heights Water District is on December 15. Their regular monthly meeting date is the third Wednesday of the month.

by Evelyn Pyburn

Given the seasonal cynical comments, of all the ba-humbuggers, I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that I like Christmas music.  But I do.  It’s joyful.

I have always liked Christmas music, especially when it is wafting through the corridors of a department store or mall.  I also enjoy the lights and all the corny gift ideas.  Even the crowds.  Without all those people bustling about, the celebration that is Christmas, would lack much of its excitement.

Part of my joy goes back to those rare events when, as a child, our family would allot one evening, in downtown Bozeman, to shop for Christmas.  Shopping was a much bigger deal for my brothers and I, than it probably is for kids, now- a -days.  We never “shopped”.  Especially, not as a family event.

It was usually cold and snowy. The ice and snow reflected all the brilliance of the Christmas decorations that adorned Main Street, scattering the lights into a zillion little pieces.  There was Christmas music seeping through every doorway, lights and displays sparkled from every window. And for kids from the country, the hustle and bustle of lots of people was nothing but heady excitement.

Mom and Dad would dole out a sum, to be spent on one another, and then set us free to explore the shops and stores to our heart’s content.  (Believe it or not, no one worried a whit about us being safe.  There was no reason to worry.)

It was great fun prowling the store aisles; sharing a significant find that was just right for one of us; sneaking about in making the purchase; keeping each other’s secrets; and wondering what gifts Mom and Dad were finding for us.

The highlight of the evening was eating dinner at the counter in Woolworth’s! Eating out was a big, big deal.  Eating out was even more rare than being able to go shopping. (Those who know what Woolworth’s was are showing their age; for those who don’t— it was a department store.) I can still smell all the wonderful smells, and I knew that Dad was going to order the turkey dinner plate. Can you imagine kids considering eating at the counter in a dime store as exciting, today?

Shopping has never been as much fun as it was then, but there’s still a joy and excitement of it that is part and parcel of the joy of the season -– I know that that’s true because people just wouldn’t do it, if there wasn’t fun in it, no matter what all the bah-humbuggers say.

When I look around a Christmas, I don’t see angry, frustrated people, I see busy, happy people.  And joy is all about, if you but look for it.  There’s the joy of children peering at store displays, as I once did, or the intent faces of those imagining the look of joy they hope to bring to someone’s face on Christmas morning.

One of the most wonderful Christmas experiences I’ve ever had wasn’t that long ago. It was the first time I ever saw a house decorated with brilliant lights, blinking in sync with Christmas music.  I laughed out loud with the sheer delight of it.  It was totally wonderful to see that someone worked so hard to create something, for no other purpose, than to make someone laugh out loud in appreciation of the joy that was dancing around with all those crazy lights and the beautiful music.  It was one huge exuberant expression of joy.

That’s what I see when I see the lights of Christmas trees peering from windows along a street.  Or even if it’s just one skinny string of lights along a porch railing.  It is someone’s expression of joy.  No matter how modest the decorations, they took some effort. If the decorations didn’t reflect some level of joy and good will, they wouldn’t be there.  I see that joy, and revel in the fact that so many people can find joy and want to share it.

May your Christmas be merry and joyful.

The Blue Angels will perform in Billings on August 12 and 13, 2023.

They are coming to Billings as the result of a year’s long effort by a group of Billings’s volunteers, who remembered the air shows of over twenty years ago and wanted to recreate the experience for a new generation and to showcase Billings.

The Blue Angels recently announced the schedule for what will be their 77th air show season. . The Blue Angels are scheduled to perform 62 demonstrations at 33 locations in 2023.

Demonstration sites are selected two years prior to the show season.

The idea of bringing the Blue Angels back to Billings, all started over breakfast at PAYS café, where two old friends reminisced about their youth growing up in Billings and what they loved and appreciated about their hometown.  As Jake Penwell and Matt McDonnell talked about it and as they went on to talk about their hope to be able to “give back” to the community they loved, they suddenly declared “why not!?” Why not try to bring the air show back.

Penwell shared how impactful the former air shows in Billings had been for him. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, explaining that he had long been entertaining ideas of joining the military, but after seeing the air show he enlisted in the Navy. Today, Penwell’s son has become the third generation of Penwells to serve in the Navy.

As they committed themselves to bringing an air show back to Billings, “We decided that our best course of action was just to move forward until we hit a hurdle we couldn’t overcome. We never ran into that hurdle,” said Penwell.

They identified some other friends and community leaders and invited them all to lunch one day. Penwell and McDonnell put forth the challenge and asked their guests if they wanted to sign on. “Not one said no,” exclaimed Penwell, “They became our board of directors.”

“Now a year later, we have attracted the Blue Angels”

Penwell lauds their “board of directors” for their yeomen’s efforts. “You can’t do it on your own,” he said.

The Blue Angels is a flight demon-ration squadron of the United States Navy who fly Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. Over the years they have performed for more than 500 million people. The squadron’s logistics support aircraft is the C-130J Super Hercules.

Founded in 1946 by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Blue Angel’s performances assist in recruiting and retention goals for the military services, enhance esprit de corps among uniformed men and women, and inspire and educate young people. The team is stationed at Forrest Sherman Field, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, during the air show season. The squadron spends January through March training at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California.

Getting the Blue Angel’s to come is just the beginning … there is much that must be done over the coming year and a lot more volunteers will be needed, as well as financial support— whether it is to become a sponsor or to buy a ticket.

Penwell said he is amazed at the generosity of everyone in sharing their time and expertise. Especially helpful has been those who produced past air shows. Also offering great insight and direction has been event producers at Metra Park and those involved with the Magic City Blues Fest. Also helping out has been Kendall Switzer of Bozeman who is a former member of the Blue Angel’s team. “He has been to countless air shows and he has been an incredible asset to us.”

As the board worked on the project, which started out as something of a secret mission, word leaked out, said Penwell and they were soon being asked by many people how they could help – especially from those in “aviation circles”. Everyone wants to make it “the best air show we have ever seen,” said Penwell.

Hosting the Blue Angels will undoubtedly draw attendance from throughout the region. The timing will be such as to afford an opportunity to show off the newly remodeled Billings’ airport which will have just been completed.  The air show is also an amazing opportunity to show off Billings, and to bring people to come and enjoy the city.

So amazingly has “the board” worked together, said Penwell, he hopes they may be able to formalize the group to work on other projects in the future that will give-back to Billings and showcase the city.

Those who have been part of the group striving to bring the Blue Angeles to Billings are: Kendall (Thumper) Switzer, Matt McDonnell, Tim Goodridge, Jake Penwell, Michael Sanderson, John Ostlund, Don Jones, Vu Pham, Robb Bergeson, Jay Jamieson, Ty Elkin, Reid Pyburn, Chad Ametoy, Chris Kukulski, Gary Blain, Kevin Ploehn, Jodee Etchart, Sara Young, Eric Finstad, and Alex Tyson.