A standing-room-only crowd heard the most detailed One Big Sky project plans to date Wednesday, and most Billings City Council members were on hand in the lead-up to deciding April 9 whether to support pursuing the ambitious economic development strategy with a $100,000 contribution of taxpayer money.
Groups including Big Sky Economic Development, the Downtown Billings Partnership, the Billings Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Business Improvement District have already committed $575,000 toward the next two phases of the year-long study, aimed at further developing two downtown districts — one along the medical corridor, the other a hospitality district featuring a convention center and, perhaps, a parking garage as its centerpieces.
Hammes Company of Madison, Wisconsin, which is exploring the project’s feasibility in depth, plans to spend $1.2 million on the One Big Sky study.
Among other categories, here’s what the $675,000 in local contributions will cover:
- $162,000 for the conceptual design.
- $78,000 for master planning.
- $74,000 for a fiscal and economic impact analysis.
- $64,000 on legal/finance/land use issues.
- $60,000 for feasibility and market analysis.
- $47,000 for a traffic and parking analysis.
Those and other studies will be performed by local contractors when possible. The work is scheduled for completion by April 2019.
The strategy partners, as the groups are calling themselves, will hold meetings in May, August, November and February 2019 to update the public on the progress being made.
“The only reason this (project) is stalled at all is because of what people don’t know,” said Kris Carpenter, who chairs the chamber board. “As a small business owner, I realize how much impact this will have on our community.”
“It’s important that we continue these open and public dialogues,” said Chamber President John Brewer. “We will seek out advice and we will dispel rumors that we hear about.”
Brewer said a new update to a convention center study shows that 24 percent of Billings’ tourism business is tied to conventions, and the community could lose one-third of that business over the next five years because it does not have what other communities in the region have either built or are considering: a modern convention center.
He also disputed the notion that convention centers must be subsidized by public funds.
“None of the partners intend for the costs of operations, sales and marketing to be absorbed by the city,” he said in response to a question by Councilman Frank Ewalt.
Katy Easton, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, called the plan that the study process will produce “the guiding document for all future economic development. It will truly lay out what’s in store for us.”
Bob Dunn, president of Hammes Company, will be in Billings April 16 and will speak during the city council’s work session that evening.
Asked by Councilwoman Penny Ronning what happens if the council turns down the $100,000 request April 9, Steve Arveschoug, Big Sky Economic Development executive director, said he will “ask again at the next meeting. Obviously, we would have a lot of work to do, because it would put a substantial dent in our work plan … This is a compelling enough argument, and we have a good track record as a community managing projects,” including the East Billings Urban Renewal District, where a local investment of about $700,000 has helped attract $56 million in private investment.
“I can’t say that will be the exact return on investment (for the One Big Sky project), but with the team you have assembled, we will do our best to enjoy the same return on investment,” Arveschoug said. “It won’t happen overnight. It will take many years to get where we need to go.”
Council members in general expressed support for agreeing to the donation that’s being requested of the city.
“This is an exciting thing to look forward to,” said Councilwoman Denise Joy. “It’s a way to transform our city and our young people (by attracting talented young workers). We want to make it a city our young people can be proud of.”
“A lot of my concerns have been answered,” said Councilman Shaun Brown, who joined the two-hour meeting by telephone. “I’m very pleased to see more of the community getting involved — a lot more than just the downtown community. Obviously I’ve supported this all along, and I still do.”
Councilman Dick Clark said the city’s contribution is closer to $500,000, since $400,000 of the local match is coming through tax increment financing from the Downtown Billings Partnership, which is putting up the Yesteryears building as collateral to secure a line of credit from Big Sky Economic Development.
“We should let people know what is actually happening,” Clark said.
“There are a lot of questions and a lot of uncertainty,” said Mayor Bill Cole, who also joined the conversation by telephone. “The first bite for us will be, do we want to go into this planning process? Hammes is willing to put more than $1 million into this, and we need to make sure we are all rowing in the same direction.”