Last Thursday, Billings Sen. Roger Webb, the chairman of the taxation committee, tried to move a bill that would have helped create private-public partnerships to enable the One Big Sky District.
The effort came so close, not just once but twice.
The bill stalled in committee on a 5-to-5 tie vote. Then, an attempt to "blast" the bill out of committee failed by one vote.
It seems like the bill, which would have created large opportunity zones of private and public partnerships across Montana was doomed, but just barely.
That's both good and bad news for Billings -- and the state of Montana.
For now, the One Big Sky District looks to remain a concept; an idea. Without the legislation and a guarantee of public support, the massive development that would have invested as much as a billion dollars into Billings during the course of a decade or more is likely dead. Developers leading the project said that a financing tool like Webb's bill was a necessity to move forward. And the City of Billings alone, despite its tax-increment financing districts, doesn't appear to have the financial capacity to single-handedly manage a project of that scope and size.
Without state support, the project will remain on the drawing board and in the binders of economic developers.
There seems to be two important lessons that have come from the defeat in Helena.
First, the idea is still worthwhile. We hope that the idea, while stalled or in limbo, will come back in some form.
Billings needs vision and bold ideas. We need to be the kind of community that attracts business, and continues to reinvent the downtown. We have so many positive things to be proud of, and we must not lose momentum.
We also acknowledge that while the One Big Sky District had critics -- some of whom raised excellent questions -- we also saw the project galvanize plenty of support. The message seemed unmistakable: Residents believe in the future of Billings and its power to attract business and professionals. We don't have to be Bozeman or Missoula to capitalize on our strengths.
Yet, if we're being honest, when developers talked with legislators, they seemed to expect that success at the Legislature was a given. In order to have success, especially on something this large, a lot more time needs to be spent behind the scenes working on convincing skeptical lawmakers who are used to myriad pitches. We're not sure leaders built a coalition. It was sometimes as if Billings and some developers simply expected lawmakers to do anything, and support any bill that seemingly purported to spur economic development.
Billings leaders had plenty of enthusiasm and rallied, even when the city council's support for the project appeared to wane. And, many of the leaders put plenty of miles traveling to the capitol to support the failed measure.
Some developers pointed to successes in other states, but what other places do is rarely convincing to a bunch of lawmakers who believe Montana has cornered the market on the right way of doing things. Moreover, the dynamics of other states are not easily translated in Big Sky Country. Places like Allentown or Green Bay just doesn't sway folks in Helena.
We were disappointed that so much of the heavy lifting -- the drafting and the redrafting of the bill -- took place while the legislature was in session. The bill seemed rushed, and it didn't give residents or lawmakers enough time, giving the appearance to critics that it was being rushed.
The developers seemed to overestimate their skill at convincing skeptical legislators, and didn't seem to understand the dynamic of Billings and the urban areas in the political milieu of the capital.
We have seen plenty of cases where good ideas don't always succeed on the first time. In fact, some bills take several sessions to make it through successfully. But, that also means that some laws and programs take years before gaining enough traction. That the bill came as close as it did, given its hurried nature, is impressive.
The idea of the One Big Sky District is truly visionary and needed. The legislation may not only be good for Billings, but the entire state. It deserves another chance, even if it is two years from now.
The failures this year on One Big Sky shouldn't doom the concept or the legislation forever.