It’s true that downtown Billings should have a “plan” for the future. A plan that takes into account what is happening downtown and what is likely to happen and what the city needs to do to facilitate private sector development – such as having adequate utility lines in the right place and streets and lights to accommodate the safety of citizens. A plan to do what city government is supposed to do.

One thing that that planning shouldn’t include, however, is the picking of winners and losers. Plans shouldn’t, for example, favor one kind of business endeavor in one part of town, which couldn’t exist without taxpayer funding, while giving the cold shoulder to private investors who want to invest in a similar project, in another part of town. Not that it would take much of a cold shoulder to discourage them – the last thing any investors want to do is compete with a subsidized entity.

If planning for the future is the goal of city government then they should give undivided focus as to whether the codes and regulations they adopt are far beyond the market’s ability to support. It is indeed wonderful to have the very best and to have the loftiest of goals, but sometimes, in the real world, tradeoffs have to be made with reality.

Most municipal planners throughout this country have this appetite for steak, when hamburger would do, and their message to the business community seems to be, “If you can’t afford steak, we would rather see you starve.”  Starvation in downtowns is the looming hulks of empty buildings.

It doesn’t matter how adamant bureaucrats or visionaries are about the ideals of safety and esthetics, in the end if their demands can’t be justified in a real business plan, the private property owner/ investor is going to walk away. And, what that leaves in empty, abandoned buildings is a greater risk and eye sore.

In the private sector, business owners and entrepreneurs usually plan to grow and improve incrementally, as the market permits – that is what is meant by “boot-strap.” Start- ups need the flexibility to do that, few can ever afford top-of-the –line in the equipment, furniture or facilities – hence the reason so many start in basements or garages.

If existing businesses can’t expand and remodel because codes demand more than they can afford, unlike the City, they don’t have pockets deep enough to do it anyway. If a business owner can’t justify the cost of staying in business in a downtown area, encumbered as they are by limited parking, advertising restrictions, and massive bureaucracy, they will simply move to where the numbers make more sense and the rules are more flexible.

Perhaps they won’t move, perhaps they will simply quit business, not even trying to sell it because there is little to entice prospective buyers.

If they own a building, it may mean walking away and leaving the building vacant, because no renters can make the numbers fit with market realities.

A good sign of whether a city’s downtown area is afflicted with such a problem is whether they see stalwart, long-standing retailers leaving downtown. Or, if an inordinate number of buildings are standing empty. That should cause red flags to wave.

What might a city do if they confront that kind of situation? Some cities have created special tax districts through which grants are available to downtown property owners to help them meet the codes as imposed by City Fathers. But, then such options do little good if the funds are depleted on massive projects for out-of-town investors competing with local investors.

Amazing things are happening in Billings. Private investors are investing in beautiful modern properties without approaching the city council with hands held out. It just isn’t happening as much for the downtown. Any kind of accurate analysis about the future of downtown should delve into why that is.

Not only ask why are retailers struggling, but why is there so much vacant downtown office space, with little interest in upgrading it by its owners? What depresses the market for downtown office space when it should be among the most coveted? Might it be the impact of taxpayer -funded office buildings that bear no connection to market realities, which add to the glut of office space downtown, keeping supply above demand, and discouraging private investment? Perhaps that is not the case, but shouldn’t “planners” know the answer? It is not some unsolvable mystery, and solving that problem would probably be far less costly for taxpayers.

Undoubtedly there is need for planning for downtown, but it should be honest comprehensive planning that asks really hard questions by “visionaries” who are then open to the real answers. Maybe the solutions won’t be sexy, and undoubtedly there are market issues beyond the control of city planners, but, to provide the most open and equitable environment for all businesses is how to build a solid, from the ground up, future for the community.