Developer: Billings should choose One Big Sky project or face consequences

Posted at 10:45 PM, Apr 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-17 00:45:34-04

BILLINGS – The city of Billings, civic leaders, and lead developers of the long-discussed One Big Sky project in downtown are partners and now hope to come up with a plan on how to transform the Magic City.

The process is expected to be at least a year of planning and research before the first shovel hits the ground.

Hammes Company President Bob Dunn, who has helped foster the vision for such a plan, visited Billings on Monday to meet with leaders and City Council.

"We see a city that has a great infrastructure, a lot of character and complexion to its downtown," Dunn said. "We translate that into what are the trends that we see that we know are going to be impactful in the future in the country. And what we see is to take the bones of Billings and really build a plan for the future."

The plan, and its execution, would bring new life, development, and tax base to the heart of the city, Dunn says.

Since the plans have shifted from its original conception as Montana’s two tallest skyscrapers to a revision of Billings’ two most important districts, only a multi-colored map has been unveiled.

That has left the question of what development is being considered. A majority, Dunn says, would be focused on residential and tourism.

"New development and re-development of some of the great architecture and buildings that exist in Billings today. That’s a nice blend to have. Some cities don’t have the architectural character that Billings has. So then you want to know the question, well what is it? What could be built here? Certainly residential. We believe there’s a great opportunity to bring in urban residential to the core of Billings," Dunn said.

"We believe tourism has a tremendous upside here in Billings. You already draw from a broad geographic region. There’s so much more that can be done with that. But we shouldn’t talk about it as a convention center in the context of what we’ve thought of convention center of the last 50 years. We should think about what a convention center could be tomorrow, both a community asset and an asset that can draw on tourism from outside the region."

Despite the razors-edge margin of approval by City Council to enter into an agreement with Hammes Company and its Landmark LLC., Dunn says he was not discouraged by some councilmembers reluctance to pay $100,000 of general funds to the project’s planning phase.

"You’ve got a great spirit in the community. Great leadership." Dunn said support for a project like this is a key ingredient to its success, and he believes Billings has that to make the project work.

"There’s a real drive and motivation that we’ve seen in the economic development circles in Billings to really pick up all the great history and tradition of Billings but build a plan for the future that is visionary. Not every community has that," he said.  

Billings has several significant factors to help a project like this work, Dunn says. The Magic City has a strong, stable economy and is a regional destination city. 

Hammes Company found success in redeveloping an ailing steel town in Allentown, Penn. A key to its revitalization came from the creation of the "NIZ", the Neighborhood Improvement Zone. Last year, the Urban Land Institute named Allentown’s Neighborhood Improvement Zone as one of 13 winners of the Global Award for Excellence, as reported by The Morning Call.

What makes the NIZ attractive is its ability to allow "property owners to tap virtually all the state taxes created by their projects to fund their building debt for up to 30 years."

“Allentown’s comprehensive approach to urban development ensured that the long-term success of the project would not be compromised,” said Global Awards Jury Chairman Wendy Rowden, president of the 42nd Street Development Corp. in New York City.

All of which leads to question if Billings, and Montana’s Legislature, would even consider the creation of such an incentive-laced tool.

In 2017, the state legislature shut the door again on a local option tax authority, which is the ability for voters to decide on a ballot if it would support the creation of a sales tax on certain, tourism-targeted items.

"When we were at this same point in Allentown, there was no NIZ," Dunn said. "Those words have never been spoken. When we started in Allentown, there was no plan. We were in the worst economy in our lifetime in a city that, in fairness, was suffering from generations of economic decline and real despair. That’s not Billings."

Dunn credits the creation of the plan that helped identify what could be done to transform Allentown. 

"You can’t argue that hasn’t been an overwhelming success." 

If Billings chooses not to flesh out a plan and stick to it, Billings could face a future in which other towns like Bozeman and Missoula surpass it.

"I think the ultimate reality and ultimate decision made by leadership is if not this plan, then what?" Dunn warned. "There is a counter to this. If we develop a good plan and it has an economic and visionary aspect to it that really can be driven to build a new future for Billings. If we choose to not follow that path, then that doesn’t mean we just set that aside and life moves on, it means you’ve chosen an alternative path. And I think we’ll find in time that alternative path does not have a robust future. So that’s part of the work we have to do."