A study designed to identify the sports facilities that can enhance amateur participation and attract regional and national tournaments should be ready by this February.
While an aquatics center is the dream of several people who attended Wednesday’s kickoff meeting for the Yellowstone County sports feasibility study, the consultant selected to conduct the study will explore possible facilities for a number of other sports as well, including track and field, hockey, ice skating and others.
Ice Age: A visual history of hockey in Billings
For a brief period from the 1970s to the 1990s, ice hockey was one of Billings' most popular sports. A handful of hockey greats passed through the ranks of the city's various junior, semi-professional and professional teams, but the sport has since lost much of its popularity. Take a look back at hockey's heyday in the Magic City.
What’s important, said Victus Advisors of Park City, Utah, managing partner Brian Connolly, is to invest in “what matters to your community.”
“The sports that are successful are the ones that the community cares about the most,” he told a steering committee of about a dozen people meeting at Big Sky Economic Development. “When they build a facility, that facility attracts others and keeps your people home.”
Sports backers throughout Yellowstone County should “connect the outside interest with what your community cares about,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is build a massive facility that is empty four days a week.”
A number of groups, including Beartooth Resource Conservation and Development, Big Sky Economic Development, Visit Billings, the South Billings Urban Renewal Association and the Laurel Aquatic Recreation Complex are working together to study the need and pool their resources. Victus Advisors has provided similar studies to communities across the country, including Cumberland County, Pennsylvania; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Columbia, Missouri.
Next month, the consultants will return to interview sports leader focus groups and other stakeholders. Before Christmas, they’ll deliver an interim report and facility recommendations.
The consultant's work will include creating, conducting and analyzing an online survey and holding an array of necessary discussions, including with organizations that did not choose Yellowstone County to hold their tournament in an effort to find out why. They also want to hear from organizers of large-scale competitions, such as the NAIA Division I women’s basketball tournament, to find out what local officials did right.
The consultants strive not to get involved in local politics, Connolly said.
“We do the research and try to let people know what can be funded, but we put politics aside,” he said. “This is what the objective data says.”
The study can then be used as a tool with political bodies and funding organizations.
“You will have to think about what mix of public and private options will work here,” he said.
Ron Spence, general manager of the Red Lion Hotel and Convention Center and a board member for the Tourism Business Improvement District, said people in town to attend a sports tournament or other sporting event already make up a large percentage of guests at his hotel.
“We feel there is definitely a need for a larger complex to host regional and national events,” he told the steering committee. “The NAIA tournament has already proved that Billings can do that.”
Any new facility, he added, “would also give our kids a quality place to play.”
Laurel is also looking to participate in facilities development, said Ken Gomer with the Laurel Aquatic Recreation Complex, which hopes to construct a pool, gym and perhaps a community center.
“The one venue we have is Riverside Park,” but the community lacks a facility for a crowd of 250 or more, he said.
Karen Sanford Gall, executive director of Big Sky State Games, said that each year her organization, which holds competitions in 37 sports, “falls short on some venues, especially swimming” as well as ice sports and track and field. The lack of facilities also prevents her organization from bidding for the national games, she said.
Calley Thompson of the Billings Aquatic Club said local swimmers journey about four times each year to aquatic centers in Gillette and Powell, Wyoming, for their long-course and short-course meets. Montana is home to about 1,250 competitive swimmers, she said.
The pool at Rocky Mountain College is the only Yellowstone County facility where competitive meets can be held.
Besides ease of travel, a new Yellowstone County aquatic facility would cut the cost of families who pay for their children to swim competitively, she said.
“There are a lot of people in Yellowstone County with a lot of ideas about what an aquatic facility should look like, who will fund it and who will use it,” said Steve Zeier, South Billings Urban Renewal District administrator. “I hope this study gives us a better idea of what is needed.”