It's probably not coincidental that on the same night as Billings leaders updated the City Council about more plans for the One Big Sky District, representatives of the Billings Radisson Hotel and Convention Center announced they were putting plans to modernize their West End facility on hold.
As one developer told The Gazette, "Right now, developers in the community aren't pulling in the same direction."
We've supported the concept of the One Big Sky Center. We think that Landmark LLC, the developers who have spent considerable capital on the vision and scope of what could be the Billings of the future, has presented a comprehensive plan that seeks to build more than just a single, tall building. The plans for One Big Sky would redevelop parts of downtown while also tying in the city's medical corridor. One of the strongest points of the study is that Billings has what other communities would envy: It has an already thriving medical hub, located within easy walking distance of its vibrant downtown. Billings has missed tying these two areas together to make the area one large district, instead of two distinct parts of town.
However, we've also commented repeatedly and with increasing urgency that Billings stands to be left behind by other Montana communities which are investing, updating and recruiting tourists, businesses and the next generation of leaders.
We are concerned that plans for One Big Sky are so expansive, expensive and long-term that we'll see groups like the Radisson abandon theirs because of lack of support. The emphasis and focus will be singularly on the downtown at the expense of other sections of the city or community.
Let's be clear: We don't think this should be an either-or choice. Billings is big enough to support downtown development as well as growth on the burgeoning West End or in the Heights. However, we worry that the emphasis on One Big Sky might detract enough to stop other development.
Ultimately, Billings could be in the very real position of bargaining for everything and getting nothing.
The One Big Sky District still needs considerable investment, both from the developers and from the city. Meanwhile, the Radisson partners appeared ready to update soon.
It is still unclear where the $1.7 billion (with a B) for the Big Sky District will come from. We worry while officials in the economic development and tourism industry sniff around for those big dollars, other investors will back off, worried to develop until they see what transpires with these ambitious One Big Sky plans.
We hope that the Radisson developers pick up their plans for redevelopment. We think that area and facility could use some freshening up. Moreover, Billings should be big enough for a conference and a convention center. A conference center attracts businesses meetings and smaller trainings; the other caters to large exhibitions and events. Billings needs both.
We're also concerned that Billings taxpayers will be on the hook for a large portion of the next phase of the project, which could be as much as $675,000. In all likelihood, the number will be lower, but it will still be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Making that type of investment over other needs in the city would require sacrifice. Billings taxpayers need to be clear about what they're getting for their investment and how some study results in more than just binders upon binders of pages and drawings.
We can't afford to lose either of these important projects. And, we can't pit one part of town against another. Billings is big enough to support growth and development in multiple places.
We can't let our plans for One Big Sky grow so large that it cripples other plans for years. Billings must go forward, not be stuck in neutral.