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'Incredible resource': City relaunching effort to build Billings West End park

The empty plot of land Cottonwood Park would take over on 54th Street West
Posted at 5:20 PM, Apr 10, 2024

BILLINGS — Plans for a new Billings park are once again being discussed by the City Council. It would be developed on a 38-acre plot of land donated to the city nearly two decades ago.

After voters rejected a $143 million parks bond in November 2023, the city had to rework its plans for the future of Billings parks. On 54th Street West, plans for Cottonwood Park are once again in discussion, although the city needs to figure out how to come up with the millions of dollars needed to develop it.

Updated 2024 Cottonwood Park Master Plan
Updated 2024 Cottonwood Park Master Plan

It’s a plan more than 20 years in the making.

"I was told when I first purchased that they would eventually build a park because that area is designated as a city park,” said Edna Jensen, whose property is next to the proposed park, on Wednesday. "That would be wonderful."

Edna Jensen
Edna Jensen

On 54th Street West, between Rimrock Road and Grand Avenue, Don and Betsey Forbes hoped to bring what some would call a 'Pioneer Park of the West End'.

"This is really the brainchild of two great people, Don and Betsey Forbes. Almost a quarter of a century ago, they acquired this property, roughly 40 acres,” said Billings Mayor Bill Cole on Wednesday. "In those days, there weren't a lot of houses out here, but they had the vision to know that Billings needed more large parks. Especially on the West End because we're just going to keep growing as we have done."

Mayor Bill Cole
Mayor Bill Cole

In 2002, the Forbeses donated the plot of land to the city of Billings in hopes of transforming it into Cottonwood Park.

"They basically said, 'We'll give you this multimillion-dollar piece of property at no charge if you develop it and turn it into a regular large multi-purpose park.' And their analogy was always Pioneer Park. They loved Pioneer Park,” Cole said. "This (spot) is a haven for wildlife. We have the ditch here that provides habitat for a lot of waterfowl, but also this is a great place to see fox and coyotes."

But the plot has been untouched for more than two decades, and Cole says each acre is worth $100,000.

Empty plot of land donated to the city
Empty plot of land donated to the city

"It always broke their heart that the city couldn't do anything, wouldn't do anything, with the property and start planting trees. Betsey, in particular, came up with the name 'Cottonwood Park' based on trees. It was always our hope that trees could be planted," Cole said. "There's an old saying, that the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago. And we've had a little time go by, unfortunately."

Only two community parks have been developed within city limits over the past four decades.

"Every great city has great parks. And we have some great parks... But what those all have in common is that they were all created and developed 50 to 100 or even more years ago. We've unfortunately got out of the business of developing large, regular-purpose parks," Cole said. "The need, though, is tremendous. Tens of thousands of people now have moved west of 20th Street. Rose Park at 20th Street is the closest, large, developed, regular-purpose park."

Cottonwood was slated to receive $20 million if the parks bond had passed. That was trimmed down to $1 million, but the bond ultimately failed with 69 percent voting no.

Parks Bond petitioning in 2023
Parks Bond petitioning in 2023

"At this point, we really do not have a funding source. The only place we have to find dollars for the development of this park is probably from private donations,” Cole said. "That's not going to cover the cost of filling out a regular park, a large multi-purpose park. But maybe with some private donations, we could take that first small step of some parking and some natural trails."

Regardless of the scope of the park, Cole said his high priority is building a memorial to the Forbeses.

Now the city is looking for private funding sources to make the Forbes’ dream a reality.

Cover of the original master plan from 2002
Cover of the original master plan from 2002

"(I wish) that the money would fall from heaven to develop this park because that's the only thing that's holding up the development of this park. The land is here," Cole said. "We now have a very good master plan, but it's an expensive proposition to develop a park somewhere in the vicinity of $20 million."

That's exciting news for West End residents like Jensen.

"That would certainly increase the property values around here. And it would give the kids a place to do whatever they do,” Jensen said with a laugh. "I enjoy living in Billings, I enjoy this part of town. So that would be nice. I would really enjoy that if they went through and built a park."

All that’s left is finding the funds.

The empty plot of land
The empty plot of land

"People can drive by here but they should not think that this is just going to happen without a lot of investment," said Cole. "Both financially and also with time and energy by the city council, by city staff, and most importantly, by everyday citizens."