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One Big Sky Center project shifts focus to 15-20 year plan for B - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

One Big Sky Center project shifts focus to 15-20 year plan for Billings

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BILLINGS - Plans for the One Big Sky Center that looked to transform the skyline and downtown of Billings will be reset.

At Monday's City Council work session, President Bob Dunn of Hammes Company, which is spearheading the project, said vision and opportunity is now the focus.

Developers MontDevCo, the three-man team who originally brought the project to the community, were not present at the meeting.

Dunn called for a transformative 15-to-20 year plan that will likely need to come from private funding, along with the help of public funds to help propel the plan from blueprint to reality.

"Our viewpoint on this is that One Big Sky Center is not a project any longer. We view it to be an economic development strategy," he said. "The opportunity is much greater and much broader than a single project."

The term represents an idea, rather than a one to two-block building, Dunn said.

Tax increment financing is a tool, Dunn said, but it's way too soon to tell where the public-private partnership strategy will draw from.

Hammes has constantly pointed to Allentown, Penn., as a reference point of success.

A two-decade plan to revitalize the listless, dying town into a booming center for commerce and leisure built from private capital. Much of that funding has come from the Neighborhood Improvement Zone program (NIZ) created by state law in 2009.

For background, the NIZ, which is a special taxing district, consists of approximately 128 acres in downtown Allentown and the new Riverfront District. All taxes generated in the NIZ  -- with the exception of school district and city taxes -- can be used to pay debt service on any financed improvements within the NIZ.

"The fiscal and economic gain to that community is way beyond anything we forecast back then," Dunn said. "To this point in time there is an upwards of a $1.5 billion, approaching $2 billion of new development in place or planning."

Reurbanization is a big factor to driving change in Billings. Dunn said the country is reversing trends of 20 to 40 years. 

"I contend if you don't embrace that, you'll be a forgotten city," Dunn said, citing urban strategy to help the underpinnings of the local economy.

Hammes offered four goals:

  1. Create new jobs and an engaged and inspired workforce 
  2. Provide meaningful economic and fiscal impacts to the city, county and state 
  3. Increase visitation for the city, region and state
  4. Create a "lifestyle" city centered on health, wellness, and recreation

"It's our belief that your urban core should be looked at in the context of an overall, a district concept where you can leverage the powerful anchors that already exist in your community," Dunn said, referring to the medical corridor that is "poised for significant growth."

In the presentation, Dunn laid out a graphic showing three districts highlighting the medical corridor and downtown which is conceptualized as the "lifestyle district." An educational district is also part of the footprint north of the medical district. Changes to the block boundaries could and will likely change.

Dunn said an anchor piece to realize the potential of downtown would be the construction of a convention center. The facility would have to be larger than any that currently exist in Montana that could compete for regional and national events.

Billings boasts plenty of positives, Dunn said, being a mid-size city with an increasing population of 115,030, job growth, and districts within walkable distance that do no have anchors already built in poor positions.

But Billings faces a number of challenges including an aging workforce, below national average working population (37 percent of the workforce is over the age of 50), and below national average household income ($52,000 locally compared to $56,000 nationally). 

Dunn said there are more positives than negatives for Billings, especially compared to Allentown.

"It's my belief the challenges you face are challenges you can address and close these gaps in a meaningful way if you put together the right economic development strategy," he said. 

The top five employers of Yellowstone County are both Billings hospitals, followed by Wal-Mart, Avitus Group, and First Interstate Bank.

If Billings were to build a convention and conference facility, it better hurry because both Bozeman and Missoula are in the planning stages of construction.

"This fiscal impact is all driven on what's built," Dunn said. 

Monday's meeting did not come with an official decision, but Dunn suggested the council extend the agreement with the company to develop the plan further.

Dunn warned council if it chose not to invest in a plan to develop the future of the Billings, the burden of the city's future would fall on existing taxpayers.

"The only way the city can advance without a plan to really grow and mature is to put that burden some place," he said. "City government is not getting any less expensive. If you don't have a strategy to grow the tax base and don't embrace this kind of opportunity, then you've made the alternative decision, and that can only mean you're going to put a greater burden on taxpayers to shoulder that burden into the future."

Hammes Company would likely need to put forth a "seven-figure investment" to help continue the plans with a community investment of "hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dunn said the company would like to invest in projects that move forward.

Council tossed questions to Dunn ranging from funding to the plans congealing with current space like the Metra.The plans will also require some sort of partnership with the state, Dunn said, for the project to become a reality. Ultimately, the project's convention center could co-exist with the Rimrock Auto Arena and Expo Center. 

"It could be any number of different uses. It's what we like about convention centers, like a big shed. We just need to build it smarter."

Council will meet next Monday and discuss the agreement between the city and Hammes Company.

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