In a series of three 8-1 votes, the Billings City Council Monday approved $1.955 million in tax increment finance assistance to help renovate three downtown buildings.
Councilman Chris Friedel voted no on each of the three votes. Joining Mayor Tom Hanel to approve the requests were council members Brent Cromley, Mike Yakawich, Larry Brewster, Angela Cimmino, Rich McFadden, Ryan Sullivan and Dick Clark. Council members Al Swanson and Shaun Brown were absent.
Griffin Development will receive up to $420,000 to remodel and divide into several suites the Sawyer Building on the corner of Montana Avenue and N. 23rd St. Michael Schaer, owner of the Carlin Building at 2501 Montana Ave., will receive up to $35,000 to bring the building up to code with accessible restrooms and a fire sprinkler system. WC Commercial LLC will receive up to $1.5 million for major infrastructure upgrades to the Stillwater Building, the former James F. Battin Federal Courthouse, at 316 N. 26th St.
While Friedel called building owners’ efforts and investment to save old structures “commendable,” he said most of the improvements the TIF money supports “aren’t for public use.” He said by investing in the Stillwater Building, in which county officials are considering leasing or owning space, “we are helping out the county with their problems.”
“These are old buildings,” countered Sullivan. “They take a lot of money to keep them from falling down.”
“I lived here when the downtown was a mess,” Brewster said. “It is so much different now than it was in the 1980s and 90s, and it wouldn’t be that way without these incentives.”
“Urban renewal is really important for our entire community,” Yakawich said. Refurbishing a downtown blighted building “is a heavy lift versus building a new building in the West End.”
Quentin Eggert, president of EEC, the project's general contractor, said that WC Commercial, which owns the Stillwater Building, has to date put $10 million into asbestos abatement and other improvements. When work is complete, the Stillwater Building will “significantly increase” the city’s tax base, he said.
Max Griffin said the Sawyer Building already has a number of tenants lined up, including engineering and construction firms, a realty office and a whisky distiller.
“We’ve had a great response, and TIF money has been helpful making these projects economically feasible for us and for the tenant. We love old buildings, but it’s a challenge downtown” with construction and parking issues among them, he said.
But after seeing the building’s 15-foot-high timber beams, “We thought, ‘My gosh! How could you not save this building?’” he said.
Hiding wireless facilities
The council unanimously approved special review to install a rooftop concealed wireless facility in a nine-foot fiberglass enclosure atop Harvest Evangelical Church at 1235 Wicks Lane. The enclosure will be painted to match the church.
Representing Verizon Wireless, Kevin Howell told the council that the company is going deeper into neighborhoods with macro cell sites “because that’s where the use is. It’s why you are seeing me more and more often.”
Verizon “is working hard to make these unobtrusive,” he said. One example: he’s working on another site that would extend a 30-foot chimney about nine feet. The extension would be painted chimney red, and grout-colored paint would be striped on as well.
The micro cell atop the Heights church “looks like a fake elevator shaft,” he said. “It’s the beauty of doing these stealth enclosures.”