Billings must attract tens of thousands of young workers to fill job new openings and replace retiring baby boomers in the next decade. Now is the time for our community to figure out how to become a city that will draw millennials and generate economic growth that benefits us all.
One exciting possibility for reaching that goal is the opportunity for partnership with the Hammes Co. of Madison, Wisconsin. This development firm has completed major projects in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Wisconsin — projects that revived older downtown neighborhoods and brought multiple-use innovations that paid off on public and private investments.
It would have been better for Hammes Co. to have been involved from the beginning of the One Big Sky Center exploration. Hammes’ analysis conducted over the past six months has generated an intriguing concept of a walkable downtown district, rather than one tower as MontDevCo proposed a year ago. In Billings Monday, Hammes President Bob Dunn talked about a vision that would link a vibrant downtown “lifestyle” district with the medical corridor and Montana State University Billings.
A convention center large enough to compete for regional and some national events would be part of the One Big Sky project, which Dunn thinks should be much bigger than the $165 million concept MontDevCo pitched previously.
The original concept was “way too limiting,” Dunn told The Gazette editorial board shortly before speaking to the city council. He said Hammes hopes to partner with Billings’ economic development core, the city and, eventually, the state.
The project would help Billings recruit young workers who want an urban lifestyle, Dunn said. Such a project could attract $1 billion to $1.5 billion in private investment over 20 years, he said.
“A small percentage” of public investment would be needed to attract private investment, Dunn told the editorial board. At the council meeting, he said that the first phase might require $150 million in public investment and double that amount in private investment.
Good Billings projects have moved forward with publicly funded incentives, such as tax abatement and tax increment funding. But such incentives are limited by the tax revenue the new project produces.
When MontDevCo initially proposed a $165 million project with around $35 million of the total coming from tax increment financing, rough estimates indicated that TIF wouldn’t support a $35 million investment. Then the taxable value of the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District fell 17 percent this year with a state reduction in taxes for just one property owner. The Legislature in recent sessions has spent more time discussing limitations on TIF than on expanding that economic development tool.
At its Dec. 11 meeting, the council will be asked to extend a pre-development memorandum of understanding for One Big Sky Center. This MOU would direct city staff to negotiate a development agreement with Hammes Co. If and when such an agreement is negotiated, it would require city council approval.
Citizens of Billings deserve to learn more about development that the Hammes Co. would propose. There is little risk in continuing to discuss this project. The cost will be city staff time; there is no other commitment being requested now. If and when Hammes makes a detailed proposal, any promise of public financing would have to be voted on separately and publicly by the council. Any proposal for the city itself to incur debt would require city voter approval.
Let’s dream big Billings, but maintain a prudent business approach. Hammes Co. has a track record of successful urban redevelopment. The question is: Will this developer propose a project that suits Billings?