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After more than three hours of testimony both for and against the proposed One Big Sky Center, the Billings City Council voted 6-2 Monday to approve the project’s pre-development memorandum of understanding.

Joining Mayor Tom Hanel in support of approving the agreement were Shaun Brown, Dick Clark, Ryan Sullivan, Rich McFadden and Larry Brewster.

Opposing it were Chris Friedel and Mike Yakawich.

Councilman Brent Cromley recused himself from the vote, saying his law office has completed some work for the developers. Council members Angela Cimmino and Al Swanson were absent.

While the agreement contains “no concrete commitments or responsibilities,” it does “authorize staff to work with the developers to produce an acceptable development agreement by June 30, 2017,” Assistant City Administrator Bruce McCandless wrote in a memo before the meeting.

Skip Ahern, one of three partners in MontDevCo LLC, told the city council he wasn’t yet asking for tax increment financing help.

“I don’t need your TIF funds now,” he said. “What I need now is an expression of interest.”

He said he “built the most expensive office buildings” in Denver and Phoenix, “and we filled them right up.”

MontDevCo seeks $30 million in tax increment financing as part of the $165 million it estimates it will need to complete the mixed-use development, which will include office and apartment buildings, a conference center, a parking garage, retail space and public greenspace along North 29th Street.

Ahern said the construction firm Swank Enterprises, with its building in the footprint of One Big Sky Center, “will be heavily involved” in the project, but “we also could use a contractor who has built something like this before.”

A group of Millennials and other members of the Billings business community told the council they were in favor of the city approving the predevelopment memorandum of understanding, the city’s first opportunity to endorse the project.

A project that improves the downtown core, utilizes pre-existing infrastructure by building up and not out and grows future tax revenue “should be attractive to any city council,” said Joel Anderson, a member of the Billings Chamber of Commerce’s NextGen group.

Millennials “are starting businesses and revolutionizing the world, and we are the ones who will eventually be running the city,” said Janine Mix. “Missoula has about eight projects going, and we have none.”

Tana Hergenraeder told the council that a failure to approve the agreement might send a signal to future developers that the council “is not open to exploring partnerships.”

She said that a number of Billings residents see One Big Sky Center as “a catalyst for the community.”

“Right now,” said Bill Cole, who chairs the chamber board of directors, “you are just being asked to go steady for a short period, not get married forever.”

He too cautioned that developers might go elsewhere if the city council declined to approve the agreement.

“We’re not the prettiest girl at the dance,” he said.

Other business

By a 7-2 vote, the council tabled endorsing the Authorize Community Transformation initiative that would promote legislative passage of a local option authority.

Council members said they want to see a draft bill of the proposal before endorsing the idea, which would allow communities to vote on an up-to-3-cents-per-dollar tax on specific goods and services for no more than a decade.

Hanel and Cromley opposed tabling the proposal, saying they wanted to support the ACT initiative.

As the clock approached midnight, the nine council members present unanimously approved a $24,500 raise for City Administrator Tina Volek. The raise brings her annual salary to $155,000.

Volek told the council that her "time here is coming to a close" and that the additional pay will "lay the groundwork for the hiring of a subsequent city administrator in a competitive format."

"This puts us in a much better position to attract a new city administrator," Hanel said. 

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.