“Go Big! Impress Us!”

That was essentially the message that Kinetic Marketing and Creative, a Billings marketing firm, said they received in a survey of some 50 people in Billings about what they want to see evolve from the efforts to revitalize Metra Park. The company has been engaged to help gather public input regarding a major master planning of Metra Park that began a couple of years ago.

Not one person said “do nothing,” enthused Jennifer Owens about interviews with Billings’ notables, including county commissioners, city mayor, city administrator and others who have in the past been very involved in community endeavors. “They want to see the next level,” said Owens about the firm’s preliminary probe, in reporting to county commissioners and members of the Metra Park Advisory Board, last week. They want Metra Park to be “more modern, more exciting and have more diversity.”

 “The one thing that would be on my list is finding a way to create the Wow Factor,” said a respondent, while another said, “We should be creating experiences. Going to Metra should feel like a branded experience.”  In fact, Metra Park needs to do more branding of itself, was a reoccurring theme.

The meeting and a press conference served to launch a massive effort by the county to gather as much direction as possible about what the community wants to see for the future of Metra Park. “This is one of the most historic roll outs in Billings, “said Charlie Loveridge, Chairman of the Metra Park Advisory Board.

“What do we do to make Metra Park an iconic place?” they are asking the community.

Loveridge underscored the significance of the county-owned facility to the community stating that through its events it pumps $150 million annually into the community. And, for one reason or another, everyone in the community has some sort of connection to Metra Park, with many of those memories extending from childhood.

Kinetic will be producing informational materials that will help explain what has been accomplished so far, including outlining three concepts that resulted from the Master Plan developed with the assistance of Charlie Smith, a consultant from Knoxville, Tennessee. Advisory Board members and Kinetic staff will be holding informational meetings throughout the county over the next several months, answering questions and gathering comments. Information and comment opportunities will be available on-line as well.

A special meeting will be held on March 24, to which the Advisory Board will invite “legacy” board members, to introduce them to the proposals and to gather input from them.

Although there has been no decision yet, there is a possibility of putting a bond issue on the ballot in November. It has been roughly estimated the cost for the planned improvements could reach $70 million. But, said Loveridge, there is a lot of work to be done, including acquiring cost estimates and plans from architects, engineers, etc.

Prospects for a bond issue to rebuild Metra Park look good according to survey comments. When asked what bond issue would they support were there one for Metra and another for public safety for the City of Billings, more than half of the respondents said they would vote for both.

Said the study, “…most participants were comfortable with a large price tag for the Master Plan and a large bond question, so long as the vision is relevant to the county, inspirational and clearly able to benefit a wide variety of people.”

Said one respondent, “Just pass a bond that gives you what you need and quit nickel-and-diming us. I’d rather do one big one, get it done and be able to eyeball the benefits.”

Much has happened in the past year to prepare for an overhaul of the facility. Underground infrastructure such as water, sewer and electrical lines, etc. have been replaced and rebuilt for the first time in many decades. The carnival lot has had a facelift with new pavement. Aging and deteriorating buildings have been removed, leaving broad open spaces that has made many aware for the first time exactly how very big Metra Park really is. With 189 acres, the facility stands ready to be shaped for the future.

Taking into consideration how big Metra Park really is, there are many possibilities for how it can be used and there were many great ideas that came from the people interviewed, said Owen. The report said, “A strong and consistent theme from the interviews was a desire to see Metra Park be flexible and dynamic, able to capitalize on multiple opportunities and serve a wide variety of community needs. Accordingly, many participants expressed a desire to see any new facilities on the Metra Park campus be multi-use facilities that can cater to a variety of needs.”

“An outdoor amphitheater was often cited by participants as a favorite new amenity in the Master Plan concepts. At the same time, many noted the limited timeframe for outdoor events, as well as the belief that even an amphitheater should be designed and equipped for purposes other than just concerts.”

And, from almost everyone it was stated that Metra Park “should not lose its connection to agriculture. Agriculture is important to the community’s economy, culture and history. “I think it needs to support ag into the future, but I also think it needs to support the entire community. I think sometimes we get tunnel vision and believe that we have to promote just this ag building,” was one comment.

And to call it something more inclusive than just “the fair grounds” was also suggested. In fact, increasingly the term “Metra Park campus” was heard throughout conversations.

Not that Metra Park as the site for Montana Fair was overlooked. Montana Fair, which usually pulls in 225,000 attendees is the biggest event in the state. That fact helps to identify the future direction that many said they wanted Metra Park to go in being the premier venue in the state and to be a destination in  and of itself. 

“…some participants expressed a desire for more passive opportunities – a small park or playground area, amenities where middle or high school students could congregate with friends, green spaces, youth recreational facilities, or similar amenities. Many participants believe that voters are more likely to support Metra Park when they believe their children will benefit …”

People said that they want a reason to go to Metra Park even when there are no events programmed. They suggested opportunities for recreation, gathering, or even light retail. They would like a reason to take out-of-town visitors to Metra Park, regardless of events.

Many, including Loveridge in his comments noted that Metra Park is very well position “…between the rims and the river.” The location is central to the whole community and Metra Park remains clearly identified as a county-owned facility and so is recognized as belonging to no one jurisdiction.  It’s location offers “vast potential for recreation access … whether as bike trails or more innovative concepts like a zip line.”

“Some participants expressed a desire to see more cultural events and representation at Metra Park, including hosting large, inter-tribal pow-wows and focusing on the local history. Others indicated a desire to see some permanent amenities, including possibly an open-air market.”

“Nearly all participants could relate a fond memory of youth athletics at Metra Park –

Sports are a major economic driver. Metra has already proven its capability and those events have huge potential for our economic well-being. There is a need for a track facility, for swimming, for more basketball courts, and for ice.”

When it comes to producing and booking events there was a desire that Metra Park take more risks. Because events at Metra Park so clearly support the local economy, it should be viewed as a “loss leader.”

Loveridge said that he believes a new and reinvigorated Metra Park could produce revenues enough so as not to be a burden on taxpayers.

“Most participants felt that Metra Park could and should do both. Generally, participants want Metra Park run like a smart business with a focus on revenue generation and wise use of resources. They also understand that, as a governmental entity, the county is likely to be, and perhaps should be, more risk averse.”

“When asked about the possibility of Metra Park adding or modifying facilities to serve as a convention center for the area, participants were mixed and generally lukewarm. Many participants expressed the opinion that the existing facilities lack the basic amenities necessary for high quality conferences, including upscale interior finishes, breakout rooms with climate control, adequate restroom and networking spaces, AV equipment and sufficient hotel rooms in walking distance.”

And, absolutely everyone had an opinion about parking, even before being asked. There was no consensus.

While there were worries about how Metra Park is managed with suggestions that it needs to be separated from politics and professionally managed, there were comments that greatly lauded staff as being easy to work with, and they applauded county commissioners for being transparent in this process and for seeking public input.

 Said one respondent, “I love the conversation the Commissioners are having right now. They are saying ‘what should the future of Metra Park be?’ That is powerful.”

They asked that going forward with the project, that “In addition to seeing details on the business plan and the planning process, participants want to see a thoughtful discussion on the ongoing maintenance of Metra Park. While there is some anticipation growing as buildings come down on the campus, many people also noted that the buildings were in a state of genuine disrepair. If a significant public investment is to be made, participants recommended that there be some plan to maintain the facility at a higher level of quality.”

One comment that seemed to sum it up was, “I would bet you that 9 out of every 10 cities would kill to have a venue like Metra in a location like that, with all the potential that place has. You have to applaud the commissioners and whomever else is behind the idea of turning this into the economic engine that it should be.”


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