One Big Sky Center

An architectural rendering of the initial proposal for One Big Sky Center shows the high-rise towers that would have been included.

Billings continued its seemingly unending growth in the 2010s with a number of major building projects and some proposed projects that failed to take shape.

Billings voters approved a $122 million construction bond for School District 2 in 2013, laying the groundwork for new school construction to alleviate longstanding crowding concerns and prepare for future enrollment growth.

The first two major projects tied to the bond were brand new middle schools in the Heights and on the West End.

The Heights middle school began construction in 2015. A pair of surveys were offered to Heights residents and future students to pick a name for the school, with Mountain View Middle School being the most popular pick. However, School District 2 trustees chose the least popular option, naming the school in honor of Crow Tribe historian, war chief and World War II veteran Joe Medicine Crow. The decision caused an uproar, and forced the school district to reassess its naming process.

Medicine Crow Middle School opened in August 2016 at the corner of Barrett Road and Bench Boulevard.

The second of the two middle schools was named Ben Steele Middle School after the Billings artist, educator and Bataan Death March survivor. The school opened at the corner of Grand Avenue and North 56th Street West in August 2017.

Both Ben Steele and Joe Medicine Crow died in 2016. A bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines in 2017, which was approved by both chambers of Congress, resulted in Steele and Medicine Crow's names being attached to two VA facilities in Billings.

While Billings School District 2 worked on its own projects, Lockwood voters in 2018 approved the community's first high school.

The school, made possible by legislation that allows Montana K-8 districts with more than 1,000 students to vote to create their own high school districts, is scheduled to officially open its doors in 2020. Lockwood's first high school class began school in September 2019, however, in an auxiliary building on the Lockwood Schools campus.

In 2011, Billings voters approved a $16 million bond for the construction of a brand new public library. The Billings Public Library, which officially opened in January 2014, dropped the first name of Parmly Billings, son of Billings namesake Frederick Billings. The previous library, built in 1955 as a hardware store, was demolished.

Downtown Billings saw one of its largest major building projects in years completed in 2012 as the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse opened its doors. The previous federal courthouse — also named for Battin — went up for auction the following year.

The old building was sold for $3.275 million to a company that later went bankrupt, which attempted to sell what was then known as the Kono Building for $33.8 million. The building was later acquired by an Alaskan company in a foreclosure sale for $3.2 million, and has been renovated and renamed the Stillwater Building.

The Alberta Bair Theater began a major expansion and renovation project in 2019. The 1931 building, which was originally built as a Fox movie theater, hadn't had major remodeling since it became the Alberta Bair in the 1980s. The project displaced the Billings Symphony and the Alberta Bair's scheduled events, which have been continuing at various venues around town. The theater is expected to reopen in September 2020.

One of the most talked-about construction projects in Billings was one that never actually materialized. The so-called One Big Sky Center, which later transformed into a business district plan, went through a number of major changes before it was effectively killed — for now, anyway — following a lengthy review process and questions about how the project would be funded.

The initial proposal included two high-rise towers, one of which would have topped the First Interstate Building as the tallest building in the state if built. The project also included plans for a 70,000-square-foot conference center, a 160-room hotel, apartments, offices and retail space.

As the One Big Sky plans were evolving, a second proposal for a large Billings convention center became public. The plans were put on hold not long after.

Almost equal to the news of new construction was the news of existing big buildings going vacant. The continued rise of online retailers drove several brick-and-mortar chains out of business, leaving large, empty spaces, mostly on Billings' West End. KMart, ShopKo, Toys 'R' Us, Sports Authority, Hastings Entertainment, Sears, Big Bear Sports Center and Sportsman's Warehouse were among the retailers to close during the 2010s, mirroring similar trends around Montana and the nation.

Some of the empty buildings found use by other businesses, including the former Hastings space, which now houses Gainan's Midtown Flowers, and Toys 'R' Us, which is home to Planet Fitness. Others were demolished, including Sports Authority and KMart, which was replaced by a brand new WinCo Foods store. The former ShopKo space was recently announced as the location of a home decor store, while Big Bear Sports Center and the former Sears space at West Park Promenade remain empty.

Retrospective: Abandoned Billings development plans

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