The Billings City Council declined to renew its agreement with Landmark Development, the company behind One Big Sky District, with a split 5-5 vote Monday night.
Council member Roy Neece was absent from Monday night's meeting. Voting in favor of the agreement were Mike Yakawich, Denise Joy, Penny Ronning, Shaun Brown and Mayor Bill Cole. Voting against it were Brent Cromley, Frank Ewalt, Chris Friedel, Reg Gibb and Richard Clark.
Just two weeks ago the council approved Landmark's framework for the One Big Sky District development in a 7-3 vote.
Enthusiasm for the agreement appeared to be inversely tied to the waning fortunes of a draft bill currently sitting at the state Legislature. In order to create the funding mechanism needed to launch One Big Sky, the project needs a change in state law that would allow for public funding for parts of the development. Proponents had been working with state Sen. Roger Webb to submit the bill. However, Webb told the Gazette on Monday that he's not yet seen a draft of the bill that he can support.
If a bill is never introduced or one comes forward and it's voted down by the Legislature, the city then would have no immediate way to offer the financial incentives needed to attract developers to One Big Sky projects.
Part of the agreement that the council voted down authorized the expenditure of $400,000 for lobbying and other legislative costs to support the bill. The $400,000 came from community partners like the Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development, not from the city.
"This kills our legislative effort," said Allison Corbyn from Big Sky Economic Development.
Corbyn added after the meeting she's not sure what this means for the push for the project in the Montana Legislature and the city's continued partnership with Landmark.
At the center of the agreement was a provision that would require the city to reimburse Landmark $2.57 million if the city builds any of the four main projects within One Big Sky without using Landmark as a developer. Included with the reimbursement requirement is an expiration date that stipulates development of at least one of the main projects must happen within five years. If no project is started by Jan. 25, 2024, then no reimbursement is required.
The agreement itself also included an expiration date, tied to the end of Montana's legislative session, which is April 30.
At that point, plans for One Big Sky District could then be shelved and the agreement's expiration date of April 30 would take effect as the city likely would not renew the agreement. Moving forward if the legislation fails would likely require a new agreement, said city administrator Chris Kukulski.
Some council members expressed concern that Landmark might choose not to do any development and should the city move forward with another developer, Landmark would take its reimbursement and go home. Cole pushed against that notion, pointing out that Landmark stands to make considerably more money if it launches these development projects.
"Bob Dunn made it clear, they're going to go big or go home on this," Cole said, referring Landmark's CEO.
Kukulski spent some time explaining to council members that should Landmark chose not to bid on any projects and the city then moved forward with the other developers, the city would add costs to those agreements with other developers that would cover the reimbursement it would owe Landmark.
In stating his reasoning for not supporting the agreement, Cromley pointed out at that Landmark isn't the city's only way forward.
"I'm insulted that we've been told our only other alternative is to do nothing," Cromley said.
The city has studies and plans that can lead it forward and develop the city in a way that will make it attractive to businesses, he said.
The council might take another look at the agreement after the end of the state's legislative session in April.