Tester tours MetraPark wreckage

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

On Saturday afternoon, Sen. Jon Tester saw close-up the destruction done to Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark by last Sunday’s tornado.

“It’s a helluva mess,” Tester said, standing outside after viewing the building’s interior torn apart by the estimated 130-mph winds. “It shows the power of Mother Nature.”

Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy gave Tester a tour of the arena, now stripped of most of its roof, and the administrative offices that sustained heavy damage. Incredibly, at least one skybox remained unscathed and the furniture, and two intact TV remotes on a small table, stood in stark contrast to the ruined arena visible beyond the window.

Before the tour, Tester met outside on the MetraPark grounds with local officials to discuss Congress’ role in helping Billings rebuild and move forward. Representatives from the city, county, MetraPark, law enforcement and the business community gathered for the 50-minute meeting.

Conversation focused on the need to open up new routes in and out of the Heights. Tester told the group that he was following the news last Sunday night when he learned that Main Street had been closed.

“It takes a disaster — and thank God a disaster where no one was hurt badly — to realize how important it is to make sure there is more than one way out of this neck of the woods,” he said.

A top priority to provide that access is the Bench Boulevard Connector road project that would, in part, extend Bench over Alkali Creek to Sixth Avenue North.

Earlier this year the Montana Department of Transportation submitted a federal earmark request of $15 million for the Bench connector. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tester forwarded that request, as did Sen. Max Baucus, Tester said.

In an era where earmarks are looked down on, Tester pointed out that earmarks are not additional expenditures.

“It’s simply making sure federal dollars go to the areas that most need it,” he said. “And if we don’t do our part to improve public safety in Billings, those dollars would end up somewhere else and probably in a more populated area like New York or California.”

Tester said parceling out federal funds is an unpredictable process and he couldn’t say when or how much money the Bench Boulevard project might get. He said he’s working to make sure it gets as much money as possible.

“I am your partner in this effort, and I will do whatever possible to push the funding forward,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of public safety, economic development, quality of life and, of course, jobs.”

Kennedy, Mayor Tom Hanel and Public Works Director Dave Mumford also shared details about other projects to broaden access out of and into the Heights. They discussed the inner belt loop that would connect Wicks Lane with Highway 3 near Zimmerman Trail and an outer belt loop that would provide a new northern route around Billings, connecting interstates 90 and 94 to Highways 3, 87 and 312, which run north of the city.

Tester asked for details about those proposed projects, which are at varying points of planning. He also talked about rebuilding the damaged businesses with Bruce McIntyre of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, Steven Arveschoug of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority, and John Klaman of the Small Business Administration.

Tester asked Bill Dutcher, MetraPark general manager, what will happen to events scheduled for MetraPark. Dutcher said a couple of big concerts, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, have been canceled.

But he added that other events, such as MontanaFair concerts, would be shifted to the outside grandstand, and still others could be moved to other buildings on the grounds that had not been damaged.

“We’re also working with some other venues in town,” he said.

McIntyre mentioned that the events at MetraPark generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for the community. Making sure they have a clear path to and from the Billings entertainment venue is crucial, he said.

Tester thanked the others at the meeting for their hard work, and praised the community for pulling together in the aftermath of the disaster.

“I told colleagues about the amazing work that happened literally within minutes after the tornado touched down, and I think it’s fair to say that Billings did it right,” he said.