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By a 6-5 vote Monday, the Billings City Council approved the One Big Sky District development plan agreement, setting the stage for more than $2 million in studies to be conducted over the next few months to identify up to three catalyst projects that proponents say could eventually spur $1.5 billion in downtown development.

Joining Mayor Bill Cole voting yes were council members Shaun Brown, Penny Ronning, Reg Gibbs, Denise Joy and Mike Yakawich.

Council members Dick Clark, Chris Friedel, Frank Ewalt, Larry Brewster and Brent Cromley voted no.

The council voted in April to contribute $100,000 to fund the studies, with Billings strategy partners pitching in about $577,000. Landmark Development Services Company LLC – Hammes Company of Madison, Wis., the project developer – will provide up $1.34 million worth of research and expertise to develop the economic development plan that proponents say will help employers attract talented workers to help replenish the city’s aging workforce; improve dining, shopping and hotel choices; boost the city’s available Class A office space; and could result in construction of a state-of-the-art convention center.

The One Big Sky concept envisions two downtown districts – a wellness district in the hospital corridor, and a hospitality district south of there.

Everyone who testified Monday supported approving the proposed agreement.

Erik Wood, Billings Clinic’s vice president of ancillary services, said he interviewed an out-of-town physician Monday who was very interested in joining the hospital staff. His wife, he said, was equally interested in learning more about Billings, including its schools and the activities it offers.

“That’s a challenge we face on a daily basis,” he said, calling the development plan “the opportunity to grow the community and retain the uniqueness of Billings. To me, it’s not one or the other. If we do it well, we can do both.”

“We are trying to make Montana State University Billings a destination of choice for our youth and also our adult learners,” Dan Edelman, MSU Billings chancellor, told the council. He said the university will soon develop a strategic plan to bring enrollment to 6,000 students within five years.

Karen Baumgart, director of BillingsWorks, said Billings is home to about 2,700 people who completed high school or college in 2017 – and will have nearly 5,000 job openings by the end of 2018.

“We need to have a community,” she said, “that people want to live in.”

All city staff in attendance said they approved the proposal.

“This is an ambitious plan, and there is going to be some risk,” said City Administrator Bruce McCandless. “But I believe the risk is very narrowly defined.”

City-County Drain issues

The council gave unanimous approval to declare an emergency and waive the requirement for competitive bidding to repair damage to the City-County Drain south of Interstate 90 in the area of the old Washington Street Bridge.

The drain collects storm water from a large area of the city, as well as some groundwater. Copious spring rainfall contributed to the damage, according to Public Works Director Dave Mumford.

Mumford said that three pumps working 24 hours per day are pumping 3,000 gallons each minute, a process that could take a couple more weeks. An engineering firm is working on a more permanent solution, he said.”

“This is a long-term problem that we are going to have to address,” Mumford said. “We will keep those pumps going until we figure out a long-term solution.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.