One Big Sky project update focuses on funding for study

downtown

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

About 40 people attended a meeting Thursday at Big Sky Economic Development to hear an update on plans for a major project in downtown Billings.

At a public meeting called to update people on the One Big Sky Center proposal for downtown Billings Thursday evening, there wasn’t much new information to be had.

There were, however, plenty of questions from the audience of about 40 people, and a plea to keep the public more informed about the proposal.

Gary Buchanan, of Buchanan Capital in downtown Billings, told organizers that “a vast number of people in Billings” still think One Big Sky Center is a proposal to build the tallest skyscraper in the state and nothing else.

The meeting, held in the conference room of Big Sky Economic Development at 222 N. 32nd St., included representatives of Big Sky ED, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Billings Alliance, the city of Billings and CTA Architects Engineers. Also in attendance was Mayor Bill Cole and four members of the City Council.

A second, similar meeting is scheduled for Friday from noon to 1 p.m. in the same place.

The main news at the meeting had to do with efforts to raise $675,000 locally, which would be paired with up to $1.3 million from the private developers leading the project, to do a year-long, detailed Phase 2 analysis of the proposal.

When it was announced a year and a half ago, One Big Sky Center did consist of a skyscraper — a 25-story building — as well as office space, a hotel and conference center, high-end apartments and a space parking garage, plus a pedestrian mall in the heart of the downtown.

But after the original developers brought in another, bigger developer, the Wisconsin-based Hammes Co., the project gradually expanded, and  in December the company told the City Council the project was now an “economic development strategy” encompassing much of the downtown and surrounding areas.

The new plan is to build a large convention center, the “anchor project,” and then to build out over 15 to 20 years into a “lifestyle district” in the core of downtown, and in a “wellness district” encompassing the two hospitals and Montana State University-Billings. Hammes officials said the total project could involve up to $1.7 billion in private investment, matched with about $450 million in public funds

Despite those heady sums, most of the questions at the meeting Thursday centered on the $675,000 that needs to be raised locally to fund the project analysis.

Allison Corbyn, with Big Sky Economic Development, said the Downtown Billings Alliance has pledged $400,000 toward that goal, and Big Sky ED has pledged up to $50,000. The chamber has pledged $15,000, she said, as has Visit Billings, an arm of the chamber.

Katy Easton, the new CEO of the alliance, said the DBA’s pledge would come from the sale of the Yesteryears Antiques Mall at 102 N. 29th St. The DBA bought that building for $800,000 with tax increment funds because it was within the footprint of the original One Big Sky project and was eventually going to be sold to the developers.

Easton said other entities, including the two hospitals, MSU Billings and Rocky Mountain College, have been asked to contribute to funding for the detailed analysis, and Mayor Cole said the city itself may be asked to put up about $100,000.

Some of those in attendance questioned the fairness of spending public money on downtown development while private developers elsewhere in the city were working on large projects funded entirely by private investment.

Easton referred back to examples given earlier in the meeting, of big development projects that Hammes has worked on in other states, as well as to projects in Missoula, Great Falls, Boise, Idaho, and Casper, Wyoming, all of which are funded partly with public money.

Easton said it is always cheaper to build from scratch on raw ground like that available on the West End of Billings, and that downtown projects usually require incentives to level the playing field.

Corbyn said the public component was appropriate, too, in that it would be in support of comprehensive economic development, not just a single project. The whole idea behind the Hammes proposal is to spur multiple projects over many years, which could benefit the entire town and region, Corbyn said.

City Councilman Mike Yakawich said he hoped some local developers would attend Friday’s meeting to give their thoughts on the One Big Sky proposal.

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