Plans to develop a large, mostly empty city park on the West End may finally be getting off the ground.
Centennial Park is an L-shaped piece of property at 32nd Street West and St. Johns Avenue. Four ball fields take up a little less than one-quarter of the park's 30 acres, making it about two acres smaller than Pioneer Park.
The rest of the park is vacant, unless you count the thriving colony of Richardson ground squirrels that have made the park their home for decades.
Since 2000, one portion of the park has been set aside under an unusual lease agreement that is tied to a proposal to build a pair of indoor ice rinks on the site.
But because the holder of the lease, the Billings Community Youth Foundation, has failed to comply with terms of the document for many years, the City Council is considering termination of the lease.
At least three other organizations are interested in various portions of the park. The Burlington Little League would like to add another field to the four already there, and the Billings Scorpions Lacrosse Club is interested in creating a lacrosse field in the park.
In addition, the Friends of Billings Dog Parks has its eye on Centennial Park as the location for a seven-acre West End dog park.
Rick Devore, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Board, said his own "pie-in-the-sky idea" for Centennial would be to develop a playground, spray park and walking paths in a portion of the park, since such amenities are lacking in that part of town.
The first order of business will be taking action on the lease with the youth foundation, which is on the City Council agenda for its March 25 meeting.
Joe Robillard, president of the foundation and co-owner of the Billings Bulls hockey team, said he and his group will be making a plea to the council to continue the lease. He says the foundation board has reorganized after years of dormancy and board members are ready to get serious about fundraising for two new skating rinks.
They have to be serious, he said, because the only rink in town, Centennial Ice Arena at 427 Bench Blvd., is rapidly deteriorating and could be unusable within several years. (It's easy to get confused, given the two names — Centennial Park and Centennial Ice Arena — but the shared names are only a coincidence.)
Jeff Wilson, president of the Billings Amateur Hockey League, which owns the arena, said it might have five years of life left.
Leslie Albright, secretary-treasurer for the youth foundation, told the council earlier this month that it might be only two to three years before the refrigeration system is beyond repair.
Whichever estimate you accept, Robillard said, "plain and simple, we're living on borrowed time."
The hockey league was the original lessee of the park land, reserving eight acres in the southeast corner of Centennial Park in exchange for $10 a year in "rent." In 2003, Wilson said, the league transferred the lease to the youth foundation, which was created to act as the fundraising arm of the league and to represent figure skaters and other potential users of the new rinks.
Wilson said the foundation grew less and less active, until the league actually lost touch with its members. So did the city, until City Attorney Brent Brooks was asked to look into the matter.
In a report to the council in February, Brooks said the foundation had not lived up to terms of the lease. He said it had never made a rent payment until 2012, failed to provide periodic reports on the status of its fundraising efforts and provided no proof that it had purchased liability insurance covering the leased acreage.
At a council work session on March 4, park board chairman Rick Devore recommended dissolving the lease and inviting all interested parties to submit proposals for developing portions of the park.
That option was endorsed by several council members, but Robillard and Albright asked the council to consider extending the lease.
Albright told the council that the foundation board had reorganized in the past few months and is ready to get cracking on the fundraising. She also said that an anonymous donor recently gave the group $25,000 to pay for architectural plans for the two rinks, which should help their efforts.
Albright said the foundation could still work on fundraising if it lost the lease, but it would have to redirect its efforts to finding -- and paying for -- another plot of land. She told the council that building the two rinks would cost an estimated $8 million.
Mike Whitaker, head of the city's parks department, said that even without a lease, the foundation or the hockey league could submit a proposal for using a portion of the park, as could the other organizations with an interest in the land.
The first expense would be paying for an update of the park's master plan, he said, but if all interested parties went in on it, it wouldn't be that expensive. He said it is possible that there is enough acreage in the park to support all the intended uses.
Sue Bressler, co-chair of Friends of Billings Dog Parks, said there is so much interest in dog parks on the West End that her group would like to put one in Centennial and another on a piece of ground over which negotiations are continuing.
She said her group is open to the idea of sharing the expense of updating the master plan, and it is looking forward to council action on March 25.
"Everything is on hold until they determine what to do with the lease," she said.
Albright said the youth foundation has made its rent payments over the years, but apparently to the wrong city department. She said she is prepared to prove that to the council and will also provide the missing progress reports.
Robillard and Chris Dunbar bought the Billings Bulls last year to prevent the loss of the franchise, and Robillard said the city will be without a hockey team if Centennial Ice Arena becomes unusable before a new rink is built.
He said it would cost about $750,000 to replace the refrigeration if it goes bust, but even then the Billings Amateur Hockey League would be stuck with a 30-year-old arena with limited seating and a small, terribly inadequate gravel parking lot.