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Billings

Many visitors enter downtown Billings from North 27th Street.

The One Big Sky Center project is now envisioned as an economic development strategy with a downtown district featuring two anchors — one built on two of Billings’ leading sectors, medical and education, and the other a convention center in a civic “lifestyle” district.

The Hammes Company of Madison, Wisconsin, which has studied the project for about six months, says that solid anchors could lead to billions of dollars in private investment. “It could be $2 billion over time,” Bob Dunn, president of Hammes Company, told The Gazette Monday afternoon before presenting to the Billings City Council during Monday’s work session.

The original One Big Sky Center vision “was way too limiting,” Dunn said. “We want to make (the project) about a downtown urban development strategy,” including constructing a convention center up to 100,000 square feet, “sized to draw regionally and to a certain degree, nationally.”

The analysis describes two phases of development. In the first phase, the public investment is about $150 million, with private investment about double that. The second phase envisions nearly $1.5 billion in private investment, with almost $200 million in public funding required.

Hammes has spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to date studying whether to move forward with the project, and could spend as much as $1 million during 2018 “bringing it to a plan,” Dunn said. “In our world, that is a big risk to take without a project.”

Dunn left copies of the study that Hammes Company has completed on the project to date with council members for their review.

Hammes was instrumental developing the Titletown District around Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and redeveloping the Arena Block in Allentown, Pennsylvania, among other developments. The company showed the council a brief before and after video describing the Allentown turnaround.

As Hammes representatives discussed the development with Billings people in the health care, education and downtown development communities, “the response has been very favorable to overwhelmingly favorable. Even within your development community, there is strong interest seeing this get some traction,” Dunn said.

“It’s probably the most important decision Billings will make, and I think that holds true for Montana as well,” he said. While there are currently no plans for constructing specific buildings, within two decades the project could include three million square feet of built real estate.

He said Hammes was attracted to Billings for a number of reasons, including the strength of the local economy, its ability to draw regionally in terms of medical care and retail, and the fact that “there aren’t seven plans pinned to the wall. In Billings we saw a landscape to work with. We always look for anchoring elements, and nothing is standing in the way of making that happen.”

The nation is “getting re-urbanized,” he said, with “the next generation of workers” moving increasingly from suburbs to cities, some of which are “getting ahead of the curve” by offering young workers meaningful work and facilities and amenities they appreciate.

“Not investing in bright minds means more challenges in the future,” Dunn said, noting that impending retirements mean that nearly 40 percent of Billings’ workforce must be replaced over the next 10-15 years or so.

Older workers — people in their 50s and 60s — are also moving to more urbanized settings, he said, downsizing their housing in exchange for urban amenities.

Billings is at a crossroads, he said.

“If you don’t have a strategy to build the local tax base, you are deciding to put a greater economic burden on your taxpayers tomorrow,” he said.

Council members were generally receptive to the company’s presentation.

“I wish this had been presented at the start,” said Councilman Chris Friedel. “I think you would have had a swell of support for the project.”

“When it comes to sink or swim,” said Councilman Rich McFadden, “I’m all for swimming.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.