Increasingly, there are more and more buildings standing vacant in downtown Billings. The trend is a reversal of one that had shown steady improvement since the 70s and 80s, when downtown Billings was truly as dead as a morgue at midnight. It’s not quite as bad as it was then, but it seems headed in that direction.

The question that begs to be asked is “Why?”

No one seems interested in asking that question, so the next question becomes “Why is no one asking why?”

Could it be that they are avoiding the answer?

There is a surprising lack of curiosity as to reasons, as indicated by the report of one former long-term downtown business that moved. With news of their decision to leave, there was not one community leader who contacted them to ask why? They were certainly never asked, “Is there something that can be done to keep you here?” The lack of community leadership in sustaining the viability of existing downtown businesses confirmed, for them, that they were making the right decision.

There are people – business owners and property owners and contractors – who would quickly give answers to the question – at least in private, but they appear very intimidated about saying things publically, which further begs the question, “Why?”

The law of supply and demand says that there are answers. When markets don’t respond to market pressures, there are always hard, cold facts as reasons.  It is never a matter of whimsy or mystical forces; it is always hard core realities. The only implacable barrier to the functioning of free market forces is government. Only government has the coercive power that can inhibit the market, or more precisely stated, only government has the power to inhibit people, to curb the choices of consumers.

That fact dovetails very well with the reluctance of property owners and business owners to speak out, if they need to be able to continue to do business and might someday need a permit or license from government to continue to do so.

While one could guess about the reasons and suspect that there is a bias in favor of an orchestrated market, one thing is sure, whatever is going on downtown, it is not a free market nor is consumer choice in play.

For all the public discussion about wanting to improve business for downtown Billings, one would be tempted to think that the first step in finding a solution would be to identify the problem, which means asking “why?” That would have been the very first study ever conducted, and such a study would have prompted solutions – solutions which would be most recognizable as truly addressing the problems because of the high visibility of local, grassroots property owners, and the business owners involved.

Given how much civic power and influence is being brought to bear on very uncertain prospects, and the willingness to bend over backwards to enable the function of non-market forces, with large volumes of money available, one might wish that there would be as much bending over backwards to meet the needs of the people who actually own downtown Billings, who pay the taxes, and who struggle to sustain businesses in the community.

One can only dream that there could be a bias in city government for business in Billings.