A weekend spent in Wisconsin packed with strategic planning sessions over the proposed One Big Sky Center — with a side trip to Lambeau Field for a Green Bay Packers game — highlighted what Billings Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Brewer called “one more step in the exploration process.”
Hammes Group, instrumental in developing the Titletown District around Lambeau Field in Green Bay, as well as other projects from Rochester, Minnesota, to Allentown, Pennsylvania, continues to research whether it will invest in the proposed mixed-use One Big Sky Center in downtown Billings.
Hammes Group invited chamber representatives; Big Sky Economic Development; CTA Architects, which is designing the project; Downtown Billings Alliance, which joined by telephone; and MontDevCo LLC, One Big Sky Center’s original developer, to see the Green Bay district, tour the stadium, watch some football from the company’s skybox at Lambeau and hole up with one another for about 12 hours of strategic planning.
"It was eye-opening for the entire group,” Brewer said Tuesday. “We’ve always envisioned One Big Sky Center as a tower, but it could be a strategic district vision instead. It was somewhat of a reset on how we think the project should lay out.”
The Titletown District, on about 34 acres west of Lambeau Field, is a year-round destination for recreationists, diners, beer enthusiasts, shoppers, culture lovers and others. A conference center in the district’s atrium has grown from housing a few hundred thousand attendees annually to about three million, Brewer said.
Brewer said Hammes’ clear message to the group was that for a project like One Big Sky Center to succeed, “they first have to understand what has to be there for success.” A theme for a Billings district would have to be developed, followed by investors signaling their interest through their investment.
While Hammes Group is scheduled to present its findings to the Billings City Council in December, Brewer said that “the encouragement from our group is to put the brakes on a little. That may be a tough pill for the community to swallow, but we have to understand that a significant development takes time, and we need to make sure it’s right."
“We get one chance at a convention center and this development project,” he said, “and we want it to be spectacular.”
Billings mayoral candidate Bill Cole attended as a chamber board past president and because his law practice has focused on real estate law. The chamber will cover the expenses for its attendees, including football tickets, and Cole paid his own expenses.
Cole said he would have preferred to hear more about what Hammes Group plans for the One Big Sky Center, “but the reality is they have not settled on specifics. They stressed that a big project cannot succeed based on one building. You have to have a districtwide approach to redevelop many properties by many different people.”
It’s “important to have an anchor like a convention center, and building that anchor would be Hammes’ primary role,” Cole said. “But they stressed it won’t be sufficient just to have a convention center in Billings. The community needs to find a way to make it a multi-use facility with perhaps sports facilities, national retailers, a music venue and other elements that bring people from all over and make it usable and exciting year-round to lots of people — not just conventioneers.”
A Billings convention center wouldn’t necessarily be located downtown. Brewer noted there’s a plan to consider a convention center in the West End, close to some of Billings’ newer hotels and restaurants.
“It’s important to look at that option as well,” Brewer said.