The Billings City Council will decide March 26 whether to add $100,000 toward further study that could lead to the One Big Sky Center concept for downtown economic development.
That commitment will get a group of partners, including Big Sky Economic Development, the Downtown Billings Alliance, the Tourism Business Improvement District and what Big Sky EDA’s Steve Arveschoug called “a handful of private business interests downtown” close to the $675,000 goal to augment the Hammes Corporation’s planned commitment of $1.3 million to study the feasibility of developing two downtown districts – one based on health and wellness, the other on hospitality.
According to Arveschoug, another project funding concept – and he emphasized it’s still a concept until both organizations’ boards are consulted – is for Big Sky EDA’s Opportunity Fund to lend the Downtown Billings Partnership $400,000, which would use the Yesteryears Building at the corner of First Avenue North and N. 29th Street as collateral. “That will allow us,” he told the council during its Monday work session, “to move forward on a timely basis.”
Katy Easton, DBA’s executive director, said her organization doesn’t have sufficient tax increment financing to cover the $400,000, “because of commitments to other projects."
Project proponents said two meetings held last week to update the public on One Big Sky Center concepts and developments “helped clear up misperceptions,” said Dan Brooks of the Billings Chamber of Commerce, especially “people thinking of the older plan” that included only a small number of buildings.
Noting that the city already committed $800,000 to purchase the Yesteryears building as part of the original One Big Sky Center proposal, Councilman Chris Friedel wondered, “When is everyone else going to put some skin in the game?”
“I think you’re seeing that now,” Arveschoug responded. “It was a single site concept, and now it’s an economic development plan. That asset you created still sits there. It will be a catalyst in development, or you can sell it and the money will be returned to you.” Arveschoug said project proponents “thought the general fund commitment (by the council) in that amount is reasonable. It shows broad commitment to move forward.”
He said young people in Billings are “especially excited to see the community move forward and invest in itself. Communities that invest in themselves are more prone to attract young people than communities that do not.”
Some residents cautioned the council to think long and hard before committing another $100,000 toward the concept.
“The city’s job is planning this,” said Connie Wardell, “not funding it.”
Aviation and Transit Director Kevin Ploehn said MET Transit staff have been testing a smart phone app developed by a startup company that can tell riders exactly where their bus is along the route. On cold winter days, that knowledge allows riders to step outside just as their bus is about to arrive.
That app is planned for use by at least July 1 and possibly sooner, Ploehn told the council.
“If people can tell where the bus is, they are more apt to ride it,” he said. “This is the number one thing we have heard that people want.”
MET Transit also plans to start service along N. 27th Street to Billings Logan International Airport, which Ploehn said will benefit airline passengers as well as airport workers who often work a split shift requiring two trips to the airport daily.
The only complicating factor is weather, since the buses have no chains and N. 27th Street sits atop a steep incline.
He said there’s no plan for now to raise the $1.75 fare.
“We have heard from passengers that fares are hurting them,” he said. “Disabled and elderly riders are feeling it. They may have to choose between bus passes or medicine.”
Billings’ legislative lobbyist
Lobbyist Ed Bartlett took issue with Councilman Mike Yakawich’s statement that, “It seems like as a group we have not accomplished a lot.”
“I will totally disagree with you,” Bartlett said. As in previous sessions, during the 2017 legislative session, the city “got involved in around 30 issues, and there were very few we were not successful on.”
But some of those issues were important to council members and others, including the authority to ask voters for a local option tax, an infrastructure package and a public inebriation bill.
“The council can get more involved in lobbying” during the 2019 session, Mayor Bill Cole said. “It means more coming from a council member than a lobbyist.”
“When I first started lobbying (in the early 1980s), compromise and negotiation were good things,” Bartlett said. “During the last two sessions, that hasn’t been as evident as it could be.”