One Big Sky district backers cite three reasons they’ve agreed to work in depth during the next year to 18 months with consultants and a Madison, Wisconsin, firm to articulate an economic development plan for downtown and the city’s hospital and higher education corridors.
One reason, Big Sky Economic Development’s executive director Steve Arveschoug told The Gazette’s editorial board this week, is attracting and retaining enough workers to replace the 20,000 people expected to retire in the next decade, together with the 8,000 or so additional workers who will join the city’s growing workforce during that time.
The second, he said, is that private investment follows public expenditures.
“The private sector needs to know the community is investing in itself,” he said. “That’s truer now more than ever.”
The third takes a swipe at traditional Billings thinking.
“Our ‘slow and steady wins the race’ attitude is not necessarily in step with where the business cycle is,” he said. “Our strong economic foundation is important, but we need to talk about accelerating that growth.
“We’re not trying to be Missoula or Bozeman,” he said. “We’re trying to be the best Billings we can be.”
That said, the project’s strategic partners — Big Sky Economic Development, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Billings Partnership, the city of Billings and the Tourism Business Improvement District — are watching regional rivals including Rapid City, where voters are being asked to sink public dollars into a venue, and the Hotel Fox project in Missoula, the initial $80 million phase of a project that includes a 60,000-square-foot conference center with a 405-space underground parking structure.
“People tie this (One Big Sky project) with the downtown, but this has regional implications,” said John Brewer, Billings Chamber of Commerce president.
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On May 14, the Billings City Council is scheduled to vote on a development agreement that includes Hammes Company, doing business in Montana as Landmark LLC, and the strategic partners. That will be the starting gun for the takeoff of the study, which is expected to take up to 18 months.
From May 1-4, a 50-member Billings area contingent will be in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to discover, among other reasons for that city’s transformation, how backers, including Hammes Company, convinced the Pennsylvania Legislature to agree to Neighborhood Improvement Zone legislation that benefited only Allentown.
Working that kind of magic on the Montana Legislature to benefit Billings, the mostly-rural state’s largest economic engine, could well prove a much tougher sell.
“It’s imperative that we have a Plan B scenario,” Arveschoug said, adding that the partners will be in front of state and federal legislators repeatedly. “We will look at a plan to decide incremental first steps we can move on ourselves. It’ll be important to show some local progress.”
The partners aren’t completely dismissing prospects for legislative aid. Arveschoug notes that Wyoming legislators came together with Gov. Matt Mead to create ENDOW, a $35 million initiative to help diversify the Cowboy State’s economy.
“That’s a really conservative state, and they were able to find $35 million to drive things forward,” he said. Still, he said, it could take the next three legislative sessions to get a bill through the Montana Legislature to help drive the One Big Sky development. In the meantime, “incrementally, we need to figure out how to do it ourselves.”
In the end, if developers aren’t interested in investing in the One Big Sky district, the very least civic and business leaders will have when the study is complete is an up-to-date downtown development master plan, proponents say.
“There’s a lot of value in having a plan that identifies the infrastructure you need if you want to continue to upgrade your downtown,” said Katy Easton, who heads the Downtown Billings Partnership. “If this isn’t what we want, we still have to make these improvements if we want to bring investors to our community.”