BILLINGS — In a 2-1 vote Tuesday morning that went exactly as most people expected, Yellowstone County commissioners approved a request to allow private management firms the opportunity to submit bids to take over operations of MetraPark.
It’s the latest in an extremely fast-moving process that many say took them by surprise.
"Look at the people here," said Rick Hamilton, general manager and president-elect of the NILE, at Tuesday's packed meeting. "That tells me there’s a transparency issue and a trust issue, and from our standpoint, I believe it.”
The wheels started back in July when Metra signed a partnership with Oak View Group Facilities, with the intention to entice bigger acts through connections across the western U.S. Right now, OVG works with current Metra management, but the company has been meeting with Billings businesses this month, preparing to submit a bid to take over completely.
"I think this process has been so contaminated that it's going to be difficult to look at a private management company, especially OVG," said Commissioner John Ostlund.
Ostlund was the lone dissenting vote against Tuesday’s request. Commissioner Denis Pitman has been in favor of the move throughout the process, with Chairman Don Jones looking like the swing vote, though he has sided with Pitman so far. Jones even visited multiple facilities late last summer in Casper, Wyoming, and Nampa, Idaho, that have transitioned to private management and reportedly came away impressed.
Here is what the transition to private management could affect: there is no guarantee that a private firm would keep all of the Metra employees, or at least not keep them full-time. That’s why Jim Soumas, secretary treasurer of a local maintenance worker Teamsters union, was at Tuesday’s meeting.
"Can I get a commitment from you three commissioners that as this progress, no matter which way it goes, will you come to the table to discuss the future of those 18 full-time positions that are down there?" Soumas asked.
A new firm also could threaten local concessions vendors. That’s why Mountain Mudd owner Tanya Weinreis was there.
"What will happen to my small business, and my opportunity to sell coffee out of MetraPark?" she asked.
“The only thing I can tell you is what I saw at the different facilities, and they all contract out just like we do," Jones answered. "So nothing should change.”
Two Billings hotel representatives say a more promotion-oriented group is crucial for the future as Metra considers how to grow.
"We could argue that you're doing okay," said Shelli Mann, general manager of the Boothill Inn just north of the facility. "But when (MetraPark) Vision 2025 comes to a reality, the operations are going to have to change to ensure we maximize the value of the Metra."
More revenue could shrink the burden on taxpayers. But no matter who runs it, Yellowstone County will always own the buildings and grounds, so there will always be taxes to pay.
Many of Tuesday’s public commenters asked for the commission to hire an independent third party to oversee the process. Ostlund made a motion for it, but Jones and Pitman voted against it.
Jones says the time for action is now.
“There’s no value in dragging this out.”
The county is also assessing the current MetraPark management's performance, in conjunction with the call for private bids.