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Inner Circle, the Florida company that now owns the Radisson Hotel on Midland Road, sees an opening. 

Billings is actively shopping for a new, full-scale convention center that will attract regional and national groups and businesses to the city. The Hammes Group, which has been lobbying the city for nearly a year with plans for its One Big Sky Center, is still refining the details; Billings City Council last month voted to extend its memorandum of understanding with Hammes for another two months.  

The process in total could take at least another year, maybe two. Inner Circle believes it's in a place to strike now.

The Radisson property is home to the old Montana Convention Center, shuttered since the sale of the hotel next door. Inner Circle wants to raze the site and build a new 80,000- to 100,000-square-foot convention center, potentially transforming the entire Midland-Mullowney corridor in south Billings. 

"It's an interesting time to be alive," Steve Zeier said with a laugh. 

Zeier is head of the South Billings Urban Renewal District and runs Zeier Consulting, which specializes in community development. He was contacted by Inner Circle in early 2017 as the company began exploring the feasibility of building a new convention center on its site. 

Footprint of convention center site

The footprint of the possible convention center is shown in an architectural rendering. 

"My responsibility is to create economic activity in south Billings," he said. "If (Inner Circle) wants to park tens of millions of dollars in my part of town, I pay attention."

The site makes sense, he said. The Radisson property sits at the intersection of Midland Road and Mullowney Lane and is roughly a block from Interstate 90 on-ramps. Convention center visitors attracted to downtown could get there by connecting with South Billings Boulevard. They would also be relatively close to Riverside Park and Norm's Island. 

The new convention center also would be visible from the interstate, making it an easy landmark to find, and it would improve the curb appeal of south Billings. 

"We see there's a lot of merit here," said Micheal Sanderson, president and CEO of Sanderson Stewart, the development company hired by Inner Circle to fill in the broad strokes of the project. 

Also adding to the appeal is the timing. Inner Circle owns the property and it has preliminary plans in place, allowing it to move forward in a matter of months rather than years. And that makes the project viable, Sanderson said. 

Inner Circle is working with the South Billings Urban Renewal District and the South Billings Tax Increment Finance district to map out the project and explore public financing options. 

Proponents of a convention center downtown say timing isn't the issue. It's all about location. 

Randy Hafer, who own High Plains Architects and serves on the Downtown Billings Partnership board, has long been a voice for smart downtown development. He applauds Inner Circle's ambitions, but he believes the only way a convention center works in Billings is if it's downtown. 

"It's not whoever (builds) first," he said. "It's whoever's downtown." 

The Billings Chamber of Commerce has commissioned over the last few years two studies that explored the feasibility first of a conference center and then of a convention center somewhere in Billings. 

Both made it clear that if it's not downtown it won't succeed, Hafer said. 

Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings, sees the immediate need for a large scale, fully functional convention center in Billings. She's delighted to see that multiple plans have emerged. 

Tyson sits on the Tourism Business Improvement District board, which will meet later this month to focus specifically on the two convention center project plans now facing the city. 

"They're so different, it's hard to compare," she said. 

Currently, the city has no single convention center location that can handle more than 450 people. To be attractive to regional or even national groups, Billings would need a place than can accommodate at least 750 people, she said. 

And that's important, she said, because there's a genuine desire among groups and organizations to come. 

"People want to come to Montana," she said. "We are missing out on these opportunities."

For Hafer, that means the new convention center has to be downtown. In order for the site to be attractive to groups or companies wanting to gather, it has to be close to amenities like restaurants and shops.

The Midland Road location can't offer that in the same way downtown can, he said. 

Currently, One Big Sky Center is envisioned to be a multi-use convention center, business park, shopping corridor and apartment district proposed for downtown, a design that allows for multiple uses. A convention center at the Radisson is a single-use project, Hafer said. 

"I'd say they're making a big mistake," he said. "I don't think it'll work."

Still, a large-scale convention center on Midland Road would open the area to development that could fundamentally transform the area. 

Zeier, head of the South Billings Urban Renewal District, sees the potential a large-scale convention center would have in spurring the necessary growth and change he sees for the area. 

The city has plans in place to improve Midland Road with sidewalks and other safety features to make it more pedestrian friendly. In the future, access and development of a trail system connecting the area to the Yellowstone River, Norm's Island and Riverfront Park could happen. It would also open the area for more neighborhood redevelopment. 

"It would be a springboard," Zeier said. "I'm encouraged and I'm very intrigued."

Currently, the South Billings Tax Increment Finance district has $6 million available for financing a project like Inner Circle's convention center. Whether the TIF district would be willing to commit it all to a convention center project remains to be seen, Zeier said. 

Sanderson said any project of this size would require some kind of public/private partnership. 

"These are important conversations," he said. 

Billings' new mayor, Bill Cole, was president of the Chamber of Commerce board until last year, talked about the need for the city to be competitive with a large-scale convention center. 

"The first step, in my mind, is to define what the need is," he said. 

The sooner city leaders can do that, the better idea they'll have as to which project — or both — will best fit the city. 

Inner Circle bought the property in 2015. At the time it was the Billings Holiday Inn Grand and Inner Circle converted it to a Radisson Hotel. The deal included the old convention center that sits just east of the hotel.

The property certainly has potential, Hafer said. And Inner Circle "can do whatever they want."

He acknowledged it's going to take Hammes Group a lot of work with the city and a lot of time before they're ready to implement a finalized plan. But it's not about time, he said. 

"That's not the formula anymore," he said. "It's about location."


Business Reporter

Business Reporter for the Billings Gazette.