BILLINGS- Billings has a lot of changes on the horizon, with the One Big Sky District proposal, a bustling West End that continues to grow and a crime rate that’s kept officers busy.
Recently, the Billings City Council welcomed a new city administrator, Chris Kukulski, who came most recently from Bozeman.
Q2 News sat down with Kukulski Thursday as he navigates the roadmap for the future of Billings.
He started in mid-November and said the experience has been enjoyable because local government is something he’s passionate about. Still, he says at this point he’s just trying to get familiar with his surroundings.
“It’s been fantastic,” said Kukulski.
Kukulski brought his family to Montana back in 1999, he says they knew it was a place they wanted to be. However, he grew up in an industrial-minded family where his father worked in an automobile plant in Michigan.
“My father worked at General Motors on the factory line and I know how important jobs are.”
He said the industry in Billings reminds him of home in the thumb of Michigan state. In fact, he grew up near a sugar beet factory, and this time of year the aroma in the air reminds him of home.
His first stop in Montana started in the Flathead Valley at a time when growth was the biggest issue local government was tackling.
“I had the pleasure of coming to Montana on my honeymoon back in 1994, and five years later, accepting the job as the Kalispell city manager,” he said.
From there he helped Bozeman also navigate responsible growth. Kukulski took that job in 2004 and spent 13 years in the Gallatin area.
“The demand and the opportunities to learn and really grow that economy in a quality way, so my kids could genuinely have an opportunity to stay in Montana,” he said.
Watch Chris Kukuski talk about his early career in Montana here.
As he makes his transition to Billings and settles into the position, Kukulski says the success of the job depends on creating a team out of the departments in the city.
“I grew up, from a career perspective, learning how to work together collaboratively, to have your police chief and your parks director, just as engaged with one another as they are in their own departments,” he said.
Watch Chris Kukuski talk about his time in city government here.
It’s fair to say Kukulski is already impressed with Billings, which is larger than any other city he’s led and much like other Montana towns, recreation and amenities are close by. But he also looks at Billings as an opportunity, a work in progress.
“I’m excited, because of the community. I hear them saying we understand that we need to step up our game, in the quality of the built environment and our parks and our trails and our amenities.”
He plans to take what he knows and has learned from working in both Kalispell and Bozeman and build on it. While each city has its own identity, he says, the formula for navigating the future is similar.
One of the biggest tasks ahead of Kukulski is the concept of One Big Sky District, a proposed layout for future development in the downtown corridor of Billings. While the concept is controversial among some Billings leaders, Kukulski sees it as the right choice.
“It’s forced the community to have a conversation about the whole urban core,” said Kukulski.
“So to me Big Sky Center is, instead of coming in and trying to encourage people that we need to find a way to have this conversation, it was already happening before I got here. That’s exactly the conversation we need to be having.”
Watch Chris Kukuski talk about the One Big Sky Center in the video below
Among other issues is Billings crime epidemic. Kukulski said he is already having conversations about public safety with police Chief Rich St. John.
“People have to feel safe,” he said. ‘To me, we need all 115,000 citizens to be engaged paying attention to communicating with one another and with us to help all of us work together to improve the safety.”
Overall he says, he excited to get going and looks forward to working with his team inside the city and the residents of Billings to achieve success.
“I just can’t express enough my appreciation for the opportunity and I’m just really excited about the future and the team of people we are getting to work with both internally as well as out in the community, just to make billings an even greater place.”
Watch Chris Kukuski talk about crime in Billings below.
Watch Chris Kukuski talk about taxes in Billings in the video below.
Watch more of Chris Kukuski interview with Q2 News in the video below.