One Big Sky District

A concept drawing of the downtown One Big Sky District featuring an outdoor ice skating rink.

A draft state senate bill that would create the funding mechanisms needed to bring about the One Big Sky District is a long shot. 

"It's going to be very difficult," said State Sen. Roger Webb, the bill's author.

The bill will likely be introduced into the state senate early next week, which is late in the legislative season. From there it must pass through the tax committee, which Webb chairs. If released from committee, it will go to the senate floor to be debated. If it gets a majority vote from the senate, it then moves on to the house, where the process begins again. 

One Big Sky District

An artist's rendering of proposed One Big Sky District high rises.

Finally, if it survives, it needs to be signed into law by Gov. Steve Bullock. 

And halfway through the process, the appropriations committee takes control of the bill and can make any changes to it that the committee wants, Webb said. 

And that's only if it gets that far, he said.

The most likely scenario?

"Once it hits the senate floor, it's done," Webb told The Billings Gazette Tuesday.

Later in the day, Webb, along with eight other Billings-area lawmakers, sat down at the Northern Hotel with two dozen members of the city's business community to talk about the bill's chances and what it would mean for economic development in the state.

Webb, working with Steve Arveschoug of Big Sky Economic Development and other leaders in Billings, has expanded the bill to be of use to communities across the state.

It maps out a system for the state Department of Commerce to award grants to development projects in any of the 25 new Opportunity Zones across the state, created last year by Gov. Steve Bullock as part of the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed by Congress.

Webb said the tools created in the bill will likely be used by Missoula, Bozeman, Big Sky, and Polson. Billings would use the bill to start development on the One Big Sky District. 

One Big Sky District

One Big Sky District

At the meeting, Arveschoug once again argued the bill could benefit communities statewide, as well as One Big Sky. The state has not adopted any new economic development tools in more than 20 years, he said. 

This bill in general, and the One Big Sky project in particular, could be the catalyst that transforms Billings into a place that could compete on a regional scale, Arveschoug said. 

Billings Mayor Bill Cole, who missed the meeting to be in Washington, D.C., for an executive order signing ceremony in the White House, sent a letter to the group. 

"This is not pie in the sky," he wrote. "We have never had an opportunity like this before, and we might not have it again."

He encouraged the community and lawmakers to support the bill. 

For his part, Webb was more circumspect. 

The bill mandates private investment of $300 million in the development projects before any public funding is spent. When the public funding kicks in, it will cap out at $125 million. Webb added a provision that requires a third party to verify the spending of the $300 million by private investors. 

But it's the $125 million component that Webb says will be a tough sell to the legislature. 

To make it easier to swallow, the bill structures the $125 million as grants to be awarded by the Department of Commerce. The money itself will come from increased tax revenue generated by the $300 million spent on development by private investors.

For Arveschoug, that's the beauty of the bill.

"The private sector leads," he said. 

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Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.