Smart growth stories: Mayor Tom Hanel on making best use of public resources in Billings, MT

Every city has limits, even in the big state of Montana. And just as roads have their cutoff points, city budgets only stretch so far, too.

Mayor Tom Hanel of Billings, Montana, knows this well. Upon taking office, he realized that if Billings was to keep its books in order, the city would need to make well-planned and well-informed decisions about development.

In keeping with this sort of fiscal prudence, Hanel has emphasized an array of smart growth strategies since taking office in 2009. His policies have driven economic growth in the city’s infill corridors while helping to keep infrastructure and service costs in line with tax revenue.

“When you speak of growth and you talk about development, there is a payoff,” Hanel says. “You’re talking about expansion of tax base; you’re talking about the need possibly of more schools, new schools, and all of these things provide jobs and certainly more revenue to the city. However, there’s also an offset: what it cost the city to provide those services. So speaking of smart growth, the idea is to infill, use the existing services, use the existing facilities, schools and so forth first to the best of their ability, then to look at outside areas.”

Hanel sees infill as a key aspect of smart growth and vibrant neighborhoods, contributing to long-lasting economic development that will stand the test of time. Under his leadership, Billings has continued work with the East Billings Urban Renewal District, created a new master plan for the South Billings Boulevard Renewal District, and adopted a new infill development policy for the city as a whole.

“People living close together have the ability to get to know each other, communicate, support the local businesses, obviously take advantage of the transportation that’s provided and so forth,” he says. “So density is very important, not that we wish to discourage growth, but [support it] in a very smart fashion.”

Hanel also recognizes the importance of communication and cooperation between the public, the private and the non-profit sector, both locally and across the nation, and the role that this kind of collaboration has in the making of great places.

“I think it helps me to have a very good understanding of what’s best for our city but taking that experience and sharing it with others and bringing them in and asking for their input and their involvement has helped us to succeed,” he adds.

“Smart growth, speaking from the perspective of a mayor, to me means efficiency, making the best use of available services, whether it’s infrastructure or safety needs, such as fire, police, so forth. But it’s also efficiency for those residents, the citizens themselves.”

Download the full transcript: Mayor Tom Hanel on making best use of public resources in Billings, MT (PDF)

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