Eighteen months from now, local officials could be breaking ground on a project to jump-start the proposed One Big Sky district.
Leaders on Wednesday discussed a draft development plan agreement that binds the local partners — Big Sky Economic Development, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Billings Partnership, city of Billings and the Tourism Business Improvement District — with the project’s developer and consultant, Hammes Co., of Madison, Wisconsin. The agreement identifies catalyst projects to ignite what the consultant says could be $1.5 billion worth of development in downtown hospitality and health care districts.
Over the next two weeks, the draft agreement will circulate among the partners, with the Billings City Council scheduled to consider it June 11. Once all the partners have agreed to the terms, then planning, financing, the required infrastructure and other studies are expected to take about 16 months.
The partners have raised $675,000 — including $100,000 from Billings taxpayers — toward completing the studies and other tasks, including a public information campaign, while Hammes Co., estimates it will spend $1.34 million for its share of the work.
The proposed agreement “does incentivize Hammes to get something done,” Mayor Bill Cole said, adding, “Is the $1.34 million a reasonable amount for this planning effort?”
It is, Billings Planning and Community Services Director Wyeth Friday said, contrasting the One Big Sky study process with the $300,000 spent to compile and write the master plan for redeveloping the East Billings Urban Renewal District.
“With the EBURD plan, the idea was to get a plan in place to be ready for opportunities, and a couple of projects came in after it was done,” he said. “In this case, we are saying this planning piece will lead us right into projects, with tools well beyond what you see with master plans. This is going a lot further.”
Asked to identify potential catalyst projects, Steve Arveschoug, Big Sky Economic Development executive director, first named a modern convention facility, saying “we are losing opportunities” because Billings doesn’t have one. He also discussed the need for more downtown housing as well as infrastructure “to enhance the continued development of the medical corridor.”
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Depending on which catalyst project comes to the forefront — and its price tag — it could be many months or even years before groundbreaking. Strategic partners are looking to the Montana Legislature for economic development tools to help spur One Big Sky projects.
“After the (2019) legislative session, we may realize we need to get it done ourselves,” Arveschoug said. In that case, "We will need to show incremental progress” using programs already at hand, including tax increment financing and bonding, he said.
He said he plans to introduce Hammes Company President Bob Dunn to the Billings-area legislative delegation the next time Dunn is in town.
Under the draft agreement, Landmark will “manage the planning process” in partnership with the strategy partners. The strategy partners’ contribution is capped at $675,000, with Landmark responsible for “general advocacy work” in partnership with the Billings groups.
The partners will pay Landmark to fly to Billings each quarter to update residents on the work to date. The partners receive “a perpetual license” to use the development plan that Landmark creates, but not the proprietary information it contains.
The agreement is in force for 16 months from the date it’s approved by all parties. Either party can terminate the agreement with 30 days written notice.
Billings Chamber of Commerce President and CEO John Brewer told the strategy partners the group that traveled to Allentown, Pennsylvania, earlier this month to see firsthand how Hammes Co., had worked with the community returned with a few key takeaways. Among them: Billings “must create a vision and commit to it — and prepare for the non-believers.”
“We need to galvanize our community around big-picture visions," he said.