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Billings City Council approved the One Big Sky District master plan after hours of public comment mostly in support of the project, and testimony from the major partners of the project.

The plan passed on a 7-3 vote with council members Chris Friedel, Frank Ewalt and Brent Cromley opposing. Council member Richard Clark was absent.

The plan itself lays out a framework for specific future development of downtown Billings, including projects that focus on tourism, health, business and civic engagement. City administrator Chris Kukulski reminded the council that adoption of the plan did not commit the city to any specific project design, policy or funding proposal.

The authors of the plan emphasized repeatedly to the council that the plan acts as a framework for future development; it's not a binding commitment to any one project.

Hanging over the vote to approve the plan is the state Legislature. For the city to bring about the One Big Sky District, state law needs to change and allow for investment of public funds in the project. A draft bill at the legislature currently exists to require a certain level of private investment before public funds would kick in for development districts like One Big Sky.

If the bill fails to materialize or if it’s ultimately voted down, the city would have no real funding mechanism for One Big Sky District at the scale developers have called for.

Implementation of the plan would be "very, very difficult" if the bill fails, said Steve Arveschoug of Big Sky Economic Development. "It will be a tall mountain to climb."

Council members also expressed concern that some aspects of One Big Sky, like the convention center/activity space, would directly compete with MetraPark. Bob Dunn, with Landmark Development, who lead the project planning, said the convention center space described in the plan would compete on a different level than MetraPark -- they wouldn't be chasing the same events, he said.

Arveschoug told the council that through the planning process they had been in contact with the MetraPark board and that they will continue to work with the group as they move forward to develop One Big Sky.

The meeting drew more than a dozen supporters from Billings' business community, including community leaders from the area's hospitals, banks and downtown industries. Many voiced the concern that Billings wasn't doing enough to attract and keep talent here, and expressed worry that the city was falling quickly behind its regional neighbors as a business and tourism hub.

"One Big Sky District can move our community," said Brian Brown, market president for First Interstate Bank.

Robert Struckman, a Billings resident who works for the national AFL-CIO, said the union supports the plan.

"I want to see more career-quality jobs in this town," he said. For that reason, "we are prepared to invest in this project."

Those who spoke against the plan acknowledged the need for Billings to grow and be competitive in attracting business and retaining talent. But they told council members they didn't have the confidence that the plan would do what it promised.

The people pushing One Big Sky District "need Billings more than Billings needs One Big Sky," Larry Seekins told the council.

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.