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One Big Sky Center meeting

Hammes Company President Bob Dunn testified before the Billings City Council in July 2017. 

A week after the Billings City Council’s 6-5 vote to pony up $100,000 to support analyzing the proposed One Big Sky development district, Hammes Company President Bob Dunn told the council it’ll be a year or more before the in-depth study will be complete.

“You can’t address an opportunity like this with a cryptic plan and a lot of unknowns,” he said during a Monday council work session. “The only way we know to do this is in a thorough manner.”

The next step will be a development agreement that Hammes Company of Madison, Wisconsin, which is doing business in Billings as Landmark LLC, is working out with the city’s strategic partners. The council is scheduled to consider that agreement, identifying who’s responsible for planning, architecture, civil engineering, economic impact, a market analysis and other considerations, during its May 14 meeting.

“Your $675,000 will largely go to those disciplines," Dunn said, speaking to the strategic partners including local businesses, the city, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development, Downtown Billings Partnership and the Tourism Business Improvement District. "The money is going into work that will support this plan. Not a dime comes to me and my company.”

Dunn said his company will manage the work over the next year or so, “and we will influence that work with our guidance … In this respect we are partnering with you, because we believe a significant opportunity will come from this planning effort.”

He said he had about eight meetings with community and business groups Monday.

“Every time I am here, I feel a stronger commitment and desire to work through the process and develop a plan that will be transformational. We think big ideas will come from this.”

Last week’s funding request “is probably not the last ask that comes from this process,” he told the council.

Under questioning from council members, Dunn said the group of about 50 area leaders set to travel to Allentown, Pennsylvania, May 1-4 will learn firsthand about what he called “the best example in America of a built civic asset,” the PPL Center that combines an arena, hotel, orthopedic clinic and retail space. “It creates one of the most dynamic arenas in the country, one that’s active every day, all day long.”

By contrast, a typical sports arena sees about 300 hours of use per year, he noted.

“In Allentown, we built a smarter mousetrap,” he said. “If a convention center is in your future, let’s figure out a way to create an economic model for that building and its peripheral zone that can activate development.”

Dunn said he was heartened Monday to meet with someone he called “a prominent Billings business individual” whose daughter moved back to town “just two hours ago” after studying at Harvard and Oxford and then working at Google for a time. She was excited to return home, he said.

“That is the gold standard,” Dunn said. “You want that kind of spirit and energy and desire to plant a stake here in Billings, and I think that’s well within reach. It’s just a matter of organizing the right plan that can build an urban core that if done right, there will be significant economic gain.”

“I believe very strongly there is massive opportunity here,” he said. “We are a company driven by opportunity, and that is what we see here. It’s my hope we can find the right answers together.”

Dunn said as he made the rounds Monday, people asked him “a lot of questions, fair and honest questions,” but questions he won’t have answers to until the work is complete, probably by early summer in 2019.

“There’s nothing to hide here, nothing we shouldn’t talk about in an open forum,” he told the council. “Let’s have that debate, and let’s not shy away from it. We have a lot of work to do and a lot of questions to answer.”

Asked what “deliverables,” or research that the strategic partners will receive in exchange for their $675,000 investment, Dunn said, “You will inherit a lot of work. That’s what we owe you.” But “we can’t swing for the fence all the time,” the kind of home run that occurs when one development jumpstarts the entire project. “We have to plan to hit some singles, doubles and triples along the way.”

“You have a lot of great real estate that wants to be rehabilitated,” he said of the proposed district, involving both the downtown and adjacent neighborhoods to the hospital, Montana State University Billings and Rocky Mountain College. “We will have infill that maintains the character and fabric of the city.”

Dunn told the council he’s “taking a risk right along with you” by investing about $1.2 million worth of company time and expertise into the analysis. “We can’t do this 15 times a year, so we have to be very careful where we make this kind of investment.”

Asked if the proposed district is stifling other development, especially downtown, Dunn said he wasn’t buying that argument.

“I think you are beginning to see just the opposite happen,” he said. “People are looking at downtown and they’re saying, ‘Maybe there’s something to this.’”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.