BILLINGS — On Tuesday, U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe visited with a group of Billings leaders, many of whom have plans for the city, beginning with more housing downtown.
These plans include encouraging cleanup and restoration of buildings instead of simply building new ones, and city leaders say they're excited about the help that McCabe's visit can bring.
"If Billings is the heart of Montana, then the downtown is the heart of the city. It has to be vibrant to attract people to come," said Billings City Council member Kendra Shaw on Tuesday.
The Environmental Protection Agency is distributing $1 million to clean up brownfield sites in Billings. A brownfield is a property where expansion, redevelopment or reuse is complicated by the presence of potentially hazardous materials.
A few buildings on the list for makeover include city hall, the old Billings Gazette building and the YesterYears Antique Mall. They're among the properties the city says could be turned into residential housing with commercial space underneath.
"When I walk around, that’s a lot of what I think about, how do we get more housing? Retail on the first floor downtown but how do we get housing up above?" said Shaw.
The EPA has identified $5.7 million in brownfield projects across the state, but Billings is the biggest recipient. It's money with the potential to revitalize neighborhoods, making the state’s biggest city a more desirable place to live.
"Figuring out a path to leverage some of this Brownfield assessment money, the abatement money is really key to giving some of these developers peace of mind, to 'look, we’ll help you do it'," Shaw added.
A quick drive downtown paints a vivid picture of the change Billings has seen over the past several decades, with downtown being the recipient of many upgrades such as restaurants and new businesses.
But more work needs to be done, according to Shaw.
"It would make a huge impact economically just getting more people living downtown in the city core," she added.
It could be made possible thanks to the new program.
"The city of Billings just got a million dollars in a revolving loan fund where they can work with developers and do actual cleanup and abatement of properties," said K.C Becker, Administrator for EPA Region 8.