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Business owners, residents, city officials and planners traded ideas Thursday night on the East Billings Urban Renewal District Master Plan.

About 50 people attended the first of six planned public meetings intended to gather views about development in the district that includes much of the area between downtown and MetraPark.

Its boundaries run roughly west to east from North 22nd Street to just west of MetraPark, and north to south from Sixth Avenue North to the railroad tracks between Montana and Minnesota avenues.

Much of the meeting focused on concerns over setting up the proper infrastructure to encourage development in the area, especially regarding storm water drainage. Business owners in attendance complained of flooding during storms and wanted to know what could be done to prevent future flooding.

Project director Brian Scott, from the Seattle offices of the planning and urban-design firm EDAW, said the recent development of a tax increment finance district - which funnels increasing tax increment dollars back into the area for infrastructure and business incentives - along with the creation of special improvement districts would ensure that tax dollars stayed in the area and went toward projects approved by business owners and residents.

EDAW was hired earlier this year by the Big Sky Economic Development Authority to oversee the master planning process for the district.

Scott said large developments in the area will also help increase tax revenue and draw new developers, beginning with the new First Interstate Bank operations center, to be built across the street from North Park on Sixth Avenue North. The federal government and the medical communities are also considering developments in the area, he said.

Those in attendance were asked what they would like to see the district look like over the next 20 years.

It is zoned as an industrial area and contains mostly commercial buildings and a few small patches of residential areas. Answers ranged from an Internet-based business shipping hub to a commercial/residential mix with a meandering pathway running down the middle, but most agreed that the district's location, between downtown and the Heights, should be a priority consideration in the planning process.

"It seems some kind of blend (of commercial, light industrial and residential) is logical," Scott said. "Support to downtown Billings is a logical use at the west end and for MetraPark and beyond at the eastern edge."

The next public meeting is scheduled for Jan. 15, where EDAW and the BSEDA will present a vision and strategic plan for the East Billings Urban Renewal District.

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