Grant money for development of Coulson Park comes with ticking clock

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Billings has available just over $600,000 dollars of state grant money and other dollars to help it begin development of Coulson Park, but it comes with an expiration date.

Once the city council adopts the park’s master plan, something on which it will vote at the end of the month, the clock to use the grant money starts ticking. Billings will have roughly a year to start development of Coulson Park. 

In fact, the grants were in danger of expiring this year. The development of the master plan and getting it to the city council has moved a little slower than city leaders and community supporters anticipated. As a result, the state had to grant more time for the city to use the funds.

“That deadline has been expanded,” Patrick Klugman, senior project manager with Big Sky Economic Development’s community development program, told city council members.

The master plan, produced by DHM Design, a Bozeman-based landscape architecture firm, includes designs for a pavilion that would double as a small amphitheater, a bike track, a dog park, a beach area, a pond, a playground and sculptures. Coulson currently is an underdeveloped 50-acre park that sits on the banks of the Yellowstone River. 

It’s an ambitious plan. As designed, Coulson Park would cost anywhere between $12 million and $17 million to develop.

The ticking clock to use the grants has energized some council members, but it worries others.

Councilman Roy Neese, speaking to parks department staff at a council meeting last week, expressed his support for development but asked that staff look into what Coulson Park would cost to operate and maintain. He also worried about access to the park. Currently only one road leads in and out of Coulson.

Councilwoman Pam Purinton also expressed concerns about access and wondered if it was wise for the city to embark on developing a park when there were no certainties it could finish. 

“I don’t want to start something if we can’t finish it,” she said. 

Still, the chance to develop riverfront property into a fully developed city park has attracted the attention and financial support from community groups like the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development. BSED’s board has made the development of Coulson Park a priority. 

An attraction like Coulson Park would help make Billings that much more attractive to families and organizations looking to relocate here, Klugman said. 

“This is an incredible opportunity,” he said.

Councilwoman Kendra Shaw agreed. A big part of what makes Coulson Park attractive is that it would include features that appeal to children and adults. Most parks in the city have features just for kids or just for adults. 

“It really could be a game changer for Billings,” she said. 

The grants are administered by the Natural Resource Damage Program at the Montana Department of Justice and are part of the millions of dollars in settlement money Exxon paid to Montana after rolling debris ruptured an exposed Exxon oil pipeline under the Yellowstone River near Laurel in July 2011.

The city’s parks department received one grant for $110,000 and Big Sky Economic Development received the other for $250,000. The $250,000 is a matching grant and so before it can be used, BSED will have to raise an additional $250,000 from the community, something it says it can do.

In all, the city will have $610,000 to start development of the first phase of Coulson Park. Big Sky Economic Development has already spent $90,000 to fund the study that produced the Coulson Park Master Plan. 

Councilman Shaun Brown pointed out that with the grant money to be used, the city is nearly $700,000 into development of the park and none of it has actually come from the city or taxpayers. 

“They’re coming up with the money,” Brown said of groups like BSED and the chamber. “We haven’t put a dime into this thing.”

He praised the community’s efforts to get the park off the ground and said that merits the support of the city. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a project that’s been supported like this,” he said.  

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