OMAHA, Neb. — A group of Billings business leaders is looking for inspiration in an unlikely place - Omaha, Nebraska. But if you look closer, Omaha might just be the key to Billings’ future.
“We all can learn," said Billings Mayor Bill Cole.
That’s the key to the trip, according to Cole. After 24 hours, almost everyone in the group has nothing but good things to say about Nebraska’s biggest city.
"Phenomenal," said Steve Wahrlich, owner of the Best Western Clocktown Inn and Stella's Bakery. "Great city with great facilities."
"It’s very enlightening," added Yellowstone County Commissioner Don Jones. "I'm very impressed with the downtown area."
"It gives you a vision and a dream," said Chamber of Commerce Chair Nichole Mehling.
Omaha is much bigger than Billings with about 850,000 people in its metro area, compared to about 190,000 in Billings, but both have grown about 30 percent over the last 20 years.
On Wednesday, the Billings group toured Charles Schwab Field, home to the College Baseball World Series. The venue is one of the city’s gems - much like Dehler Park is in Billings - but it does something Dehler doesn’t.
"The facility, not just the baseball field, is used over 200 times a year," Wahrlich said. "That’s phenomenal."
The group’s biggest takeaway so far is the idea of public-private partnerships in Omaha. The best example is Omaha’s Riverfront Revitalization Project, a $300 million undertaking funded by both the city and private philanthropists.
"Billings doesn’t do that," Wahrlich lamented. "Everybody looks at it like, ‘What’s in it for me?’ instead of the best interests of the community."
"Turning the river into a workable/playable/livable space would really enhance Billings," Mehling added. "No doubt Omaha has a much greater philanthropy base than we can achieve. Having said that, there are very dedicated community members that give their time, give their treasure to make things happen."
Phase 1 of Omaha’s Riverfront is slated to open July 1. It’ll be a great addition to the hundreds of thousands who come for the World Series every year, which has the Billings group inevitably thinking about the future of its own economy-boosting venue, MetraPark. Jones is especially impressed with the Schwab model.
"It’s a very interesting concept with the 501(c)3," Jones said. "And one of the big parts they really pushed was getting it out of political hands, which right now (MetraPark) is in the political hands of three commisioners, and none of us have experience running these places.
"I think this is a viable alternative, so I think we'll have to look at how the whole things progresses and see which one is the best one.”
It’ll continue to be one of the biggest conversations for Billings’ future.