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Not long after a tornado smashed the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy got a phone call.

“I was standing in the middle of the arena and I got a call from the governor,” Kennedy said last week. “He said, ‘Is the roof off?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s raining and hailing on me and I’m standing in the middle of the arena.’ “

That was June 20, 2010.

On that night, as tens of thousands of people crept by in cars to see the devastation, few would have believed that the arena would be better than before in just 10 months.

Of course, a lot can be accomplished with $26.6 million.

Less than a week from today, the arena will reopen, first for the Women of Faith event on Friday and Saturday, then for the Elton John concert on Sunday. Thousands are expected for each event. Gone will be the hundreds of workers who picked up the debris, rehung the lights, plumbed the new bathrooms and removed and then reinstalled the chairs.

But those workers will be back April 11, still working on a new box office, new bathrooms and a new path from the upper parking lot, to name a few projects. Given the rush to get the arena working again, certain jobs could wait while others couldn’t.

The rebuilt arena boasts a new sound system with acoustical panels on the walls and ceiling, re-padded seats with cup holders, new and bigger concession stands and much more natural light in the concourse. Since its opening in 1975, the arena has had an ever-growing wish list of improvements, but few thought that a tornado would allow MetraPark officials to check off so many projects at once.

There are more bathrooms, new heating and cooling units, more efficient lights, a “green room” for performers and their entourages, handicapped-accessible concession stands and a computerized sound system. The old sound system relied on a soft touch with plenty of knobs and dials.

“We can almost go down the list and check things off. People are going to come in and say, ‘You would never have known we had a tornado,’ “ Kennedy said. “It was almost a blessing in disguise. We would never have been able to afford all of this at once.”

Tim Wombolt, concessions manager at MetraPark, said he will double the size of his staff from 26 to about 50 to serve the increased concessions space.

As the commissioner in charge of MetraPark, Kennedy has spent much of the last year at the facility. He oversaw the initial cleanup, the planning stage and then the transition to construction. The county picked a joint venture by High Tech Construction and BN Builders to rebuild the arena, and the company has had up to 200 workers on the job at once, often working around the clock, said project manager Scott Jay.

Last week, electricians, painters, plumbers and steelworkers were in the arena, each trying to stay out of the other’s way.

The big work, like rebuilding the roof, fixing the seats and getting the heat back on, began soon after the tornado.

Other things, like the sound system, took more planning. The public demanded better sound, so the commissioners spent more than $1 million on that alone. Last week as workers toiled, an Eagles album played over the sound system, and there was barely an echo heard.

People also wanted more bathrooms, so there are 60 new women’s stalls and almost 50 new men’s stalls. Two bathrooms were added on to the outside of the building, but won’t be finished until June. There will also be a new box office and entrance, with more office and meeting space upstairs.

The county’s insurance paid for nearly $21 million worth of work, and the commissioners agreed to spend another $5.2 million of county money. There’s another $5 million in unfunded improvements that will have to wait, especially since the county will probably have to shell out another $1 million on unexpected costs just now being tallied.

Workers found asbestos when they added two new sets of doors to the front of the building, and dealing with that cost more than $250,000. The heating and cooling units on the nearby Montana Pavilion and Expo Center will also need to be replaced, which costs another $500,000. There’s also $200,000 in unexpected electrical costs.

Kennedy said the county had to choose between doing a “design-build,” which usually costs more, or proceeding slowly and saving money. Since the arena is an economic engine in Billings, Kennedy said it was easy to choose a quick rebuild and accept some unknown costs. The slower method would have meant a three-year rebuild, Kennedy said.

“With design-build, you pay as you go,” he said. “But we’re going to have our first event 10 months after the tornado.”

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Contact Matt Hagengruber at or 657-1261.