The Strategy Partnership for One Big Sky District (OBSD) Development held an information rally, last week, for its membership and the public.

Getting more information out to the public in support of a planning study for two proposed downtown business districts is “about what could be, in our community,” said Kris Carpenter, Chairwoman of the Billings Chamber of Commerce Board.

“It’s a transformative project,” declared Randy Hafer, a downtown developer and business owner.

“The only reason it has stalled at all,” said Carpenter, “is because of what people don’t know about the project.”

Mike Nelson, owner of the Northern Hotel, said he is being kept awake nights with the excitement at the prospect of the proposed project.

Convincing the Billings City Council to contribute $100,000 to help fund a planning study is the current priority of the Strategic Partnership. The council is expected to take up that discussion on April 9.

The Strategic Partnership is a coalition of groups promoting the project which includes The Hammes Group, Billings Chamber of Commerce, Big Sky Economic Development (BSED), Tourism Business Improvement District (TBID), Downtown Billings Partnership and others.

A $1.2 million planning study has been recommended by the Hammes Group, the Wisconsin-based company that wants to build a convention center in downtown Billings. The company has asked the Billings community to fund $675,000 of the study cost, with the company funding the balance. The study would lay forth future development plans for two areas of Billings, a central downtown area for a hospitality / convention district, and a healthcare corridor area along North 27th, which would focus on expanding Billings’ healthcare industry and downtown residential development.

Acquiring the City Council’s commitment is important not only in getting its $100,000 direct contribution, but also to approve a plan for the Downtown Billings Partnership to borrow $400,000 for its contribution. City Councilman Dick Clark said that he thought it is important to make clear that the city’s contribution is more than just $100,000.

The Downtown Billings Partnership, which administers a downtown tax increment finance (TIF) district, wants the TIF to borrow the $400,000, to be paid back over the next three years as new revenues accrue incrementally to the TIF district.  The TIF is currently tapped out of funds.

BSED will loan the money to the Downtown Billings Partnership using as collateral a building the City of Billings purchased for $800,000 to advance the initial One Big Sky Center proposal, which was the plan of a different out-of-state developer. That proposal was for one large towering multi-purpose structure.

BSED has also pledged another $50,000 contribution to fund study costs. The Chamber of Commerce has pledged $15,000; TBID, $15,000, and many businesses — from small businesses like Chris Carpenter’s to the Billings Clinic — have also contributed, according to Steve Arveschoug, BSED Director.

The scope of the study and other details will be ironed out during the month of April at which point, a request for bids will be issued. As much as possible, local companies will be used in doing the work, said Arveschoug. They foresee a Planning Project Kickoff for May 1.

BSED will act as contracting and fiscal agent for the study project.

Downtown businessman, Gary Buchanan suggested that we need a little financial reality.” He pointed out that the downtown retailers are “in tough shape” and “you are borrowing against one of your last assets.”  He asked how committed is the Downtown Billings Partnership to them. Katy Easton, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, explained that she is new to her position and they are having “conversations for the first time” with many downtown business people, but “we are absolutely committed to our members, downtown.”

While commending the partnership for approaching their second effort in planning a downtown development in a more open, public manner, Buchanan pointed out that there is much public confusion about what is going on, and suggested that they remove a billboard downtown that still displays the concept of a single building project.

It’s been generally recognized, that changes regarding the investor and the scope of the project has generated confusion, which prompted changing the name from One Big Sky Center to One Big Sky District.

“When we have completed the study we will have an essential tool for long term planning,” said Arveschoug.

John Brewer, Chamber President, said that the development of the convention center could mean as much as $1.5 billion in economic growth for the city over the next 15 years. Without it, the city stands to lose as much as a third of its current convention business, according to a preliminary report of a convention center study update the Chamber is anticipating to be completed very soon.

It was pointed out that other cities in the region are moving forward with similar projects, with which Billings will have to compete. With good convention facilities, however, the study concludes that “Billings is No. 1 for the opportunity to grow,” reported Brewer.

Brewer said that it is not true that a convention center would necessarily have to be subsidized by public funds. That is not the intention of the developers, he said.

It was pointed out that there are other potential opportunities for the development of convention facilities in Billings. A resident, Kevin Nelson asked if “we could at least have a discussion” about a proposal of the Red Lion Inn (formerly the Holiday Inn & Convention Center) to build a facility, mostly with private investment. Their plan could be realized in just a couple of years, which Nelson said he would rather see for the city than waiting for periods of five years or more for the OBSD plan to be developed, as has been suggested could be the time frame for that project.

Considering there appears to be a shortfall of about $34 million in public funding to help fund a convention center, they were asked how, they propose to fund it, when the time comes. Arveschoug agreed that there will be a need for more funding, indicating it will probably have to come from the state legislature. “We need to continue to pressure for long term economic development funding,” he said, “This is a multi-year effort. We need to get tools from the state,” over the next three sessions. One of those possible “tools” is implementation of a local option tax, among other programs that have been used in other states. “We need to start rallying. We have greater expectations than what we are getting from the Montana State Legislature.”

Arveschoug said that the Hammes Group had to work with their state legislature, too, to get the tools they needed in their state.

Asked what they will do if the city council rejects their request, Arveschoug said they will keep asking.