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Missoula riverfront development concept

This sketch shows the concept for the $150 million Riverfront Triangle development in Missoula.

The Missoula City Council soon will vote on an agreement to bring a 10-story hotel/condo complex, parking and a conference center for 1,000 to Missoula’s downtown riverfront. The agreement involves city ownership of the conference center and tax increment financing.

In Great Falls, the former site of an oil refinery is to be transformed with retail and office space, a boutique fitness center and a four-story hotel.

This is what Billings’ competition is doing. Where is our city’s plan for drawing visitors, new residents and businesses to our community?

The One Big Sky Center, first discussed more than a year ago, is a big question mark. The original developers have turned the project over to the Hammes Co., which has not publicly revealed what it will propose. Originally, One Big Sky Center was discussed as a hotel and apartment tower with retail and office space attached to a convention center and parking structure. The proposed site was along the 100 block of North 29th Street. The estimated cost was $165 million, with about $35 million coming from TIF funds.

Hammes Group is scheduled to present its conceptual development plan to the Billings City Council during a work session on Dec. 4.

Questions that must be answered include: Is Billings partnering sufficiently with this development group? Will our local vision for a thriving, welcoming community be enhanced by One Big Sky Center?

Consider what Jeff Crouch of CTA Architects told the Missoulian newspaper about the Riverfront Triangle development: “The conference center won’t just house 100,000 visitors every year. It will be a catalyst for ensuring Missoula’s next 50 years of growth enhances rather than detracts from the things we cherish about our community. The location and design of the Hotel Fox and conference center allow Missoula to stay true to our uniquely Montana character.”

Developers told The Missoulian that the entire project could cost as much as $150 million. The estimated cost of the conference center is $16.5 million.

The Great Falls project, which broke ground last month, is featured online by Revitalization News, with the headline: “Riverfront oil refinery and historic building to be reborn as town center in Great Falls, MT.” The story described a $65 million multi-phase plan to revitalize a 12.5-acre industrial site.

Acting Billings City Administrator Bruce McCandless told The Gazette this week that he expects Hammes to propose a project larger than what MontDevCo proposed a year ago.

Last month, a group of Billings business and economic development leaders visited the Hammes Group development in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

"It was eye-opening for the entire group,” Chamber President John Brewer told Gazette reporter Mike Ferguson. “We’ve always envisioned One Big Sky Center as a tower, but it could be a strategic district vision instead. It was somewhat of a reset on how we think the project should lay out.”

At this point, we don’t know what, where or how much for One Big Sky Center. We expect the project proposed will be significantly different than the concept pitched a year ago. The sooner that Hammes shares details with the public and the council, the better. There must be popular support for a development that changes our cityscape.

We call on the Chamber, Big Sky Economic Development and city leaders who have been working with Hammes to strongly encourage the developer to bring the rest of us into the information loop on or before Dec. 4.

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