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Convention center concept

This artist's rendering shows the concept of a downtown Billings convention center that would be an early anchor for the One Big Sky District.

A Montana-themed convention center bigger than anything the state has to offer now, a venue that would attract large regional events – and thousands of visitors – to Billings.

An urban lifestyle district where downtown residents could walk to an open-air market.

A wellness center tied to the Medical Corridor anchored by Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare.

An education and innovation center near Montana State University Billings’ campus.

The plans for One Big Sky District are exciting. A lot of work has been done over the past year to research and evaluate innovative ideas for growing our community in ways that attract new private investment and new workers, especially millennials.

From what we have heard so far, One Big Sky District sounds like a boon for this city, Yellowstone County and the state of Montana.

But the plan itself has yet to be released to the Billings City Council and the public. The project hinges on enacting a new state law. One Big Sky proponents told The Gazette editorial board Tuesday that they are still drafting language for a bill to create the needed new economic development tool. At a Chamber legislative reception Tuesday night, Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, indicated that he is involved in drafting a bill that would require $300 million in private investment before public funding could be available.

The legislative and project proposals will need to come into sharper focus very soon. The City Council will be asked to adopt the development plan in January. The Landmark Development team indicated that the plan is still in final editing, and looks to be several inches thick in print. We look forward to reviewing that extensive plan.

Time is short for telling the One Big Sky District story to lawmakers who have just 90 work days to finish all their business, starting on Jan. 7.

We call on all lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock to listen to this economic development plan as it is presented in Billings and Helena. Keep an open mind and recognize that as Billings prospers, so does the entire state. Income earned in Yellowstone County is a significant source of state revenue, as are the vehicle fees, alcohol taxes, lodging taxes, tobacco taxes and gambling taxes collected in the state’s most populous county.

Generating new jobs, better paying jobs is good for everyone statewide.

The One Big Sky District strategy partners, which include Landmark, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development and the city of Billings, project that the development would increase state and local tax collections by more than $2 billion over 30 years.

Billings long has seen slow, steady growth. Why does it need to do more?

For one thing, our community is already short of workers and that shortage is expected to get much worse as baby boomers retire in the coming decade. It’s been estimated by Big Sky Economic Development that Yellowstone County needs 35,000 new workers for replacement and job growth in the next 10 years.

Fifty-eight percent of Yellowstone County employers surveyed report that the growth of their business has been limited by lack of workers. Montana ranks 46th among the 50 states in attracting millennials to live here.

The strategy partners have stated that the financing of One Big Sky District will start with private investment and that only when private investment reaches a certain threshold would the public repay part of the costs of public infrastructure (such as the convention center). This is a “no risk proposition for Montana taxpayers,” the partners said in a press release this week.

The local and out-of-state partners will need to help lawmakers and other Montanans understand exactly how that strategy will work.

It will be a tall order in the hectic legislative session. We call on Yellowstone County lawmakers to listen to the One Big Sky District partners, ask tough questions and give due consideration to any legislation this economic development force proposes.

We look forward to hearing much more about this creative vehicle for revving up the economy of Billings, Yellowstone County and all of Montana.

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