One Big Sky Center now a major blueprint, not a project

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Bob Dunn, at the lectern, told the Billings City Council on Monday that it needed to start thinking big.

One Big Sky Center, originally conceived of as a multimillion-dollar building project in the heart of downtown Billings, expanded considerably Monday night, at least conceptually.

Bob Dunn, president of the of the Hammes Co., told City Council members that One Big Sky Center should no longer be thought of as a building, or as a separate project, but rather as an “economic development strategy” that could lead to as much as 3 million square feet of new development in and around the downtown over the next 15 to 20 years.

As originally conceived, the project was to include a 25-story building, office space, a hotel and conference center, apartments, parking garage, pedestrian mall and retail shopping space, with a price tag of $120 million.

But the original developers subsequently brought in the Hammes Co., which has shepherded massive redevelopment projects in cities including Rochester, Minn., Green Bay, Wis., and Allentown, Penn.

A video about the redevelopment of Allentown preceded Dunn’s presentation, in which he spoke of a 15- to 20-year process in Billings that that could involve up to $1.7 billion in private investment, matched with about $450 million in public funds.

“This is a starting point, but the numbers are very real,” Dunn said.

Porposal

Dunn showed a slide showing, in white, the footprint involved in the original One Big Sky Center proposal.

He made the presentation at a council work session, which doesn’t involve any formal action. That is to come next week, when the council will be asked to extend, for another 60 days, a memorandum of understanding with the Hammes Co., on the way to developing a binding development agreement.

Dunn described his presentation on Monday as an opportunity to talk about “vision and opportunity,” not concrete development plans. The most important factor for Billings to consider, he said, is that the whole country is beginning to “re-urbanize” at a pace never seen before.

He said cities like Allentown are on the leading edge of that trend, reinventing themselves in ways that attract employers back to the cities, along with their workers, who also want to live in urban settings again. If Billings ignores that trend, he said, “you will be a forgotten city in not that many years.”

The key for Billings, Dunn said, will be to make itself a “visitation center” that draws in people from around the region and across the country. To achieve that goal, he said, Billings needs an “anchoring strategy.”

3 mill

Dunn later showed a slide illustrating what 3 million square feet of development in the downtown might look like.

He suggested building an urban area with two anchors — a medical/wellness/recreation district centered around the city’s two hospitals and MSU Billings, and a “lifestyle” district whose anchor would be a major entertainment-convention center in the heart of downtown, presumably on the site of the original One Big Sky Center, where the original developers have already assembled a sizable chunk of property.

Dunn said Billings need to go head to head with regional cities like Bismarck and Fargo, N.D., and Rapid City, S.D., saying “the communities you compete against are building this infrastructure” already. He said Billings would have to build a convention-entertainment center of at least 100,000 square feet to be able to compete regionally and nationally.

Billings is ahead of the game in some respects, he said, because its two “anchors” are already within easy walking distance of each other, and because Billings sits in the middle of the kind of natural splendor that everyone wants to visit.

“You’ve got something to offer that really not many communities in this country have to offer,” he said.

Dunn said the plan he laid out had four goals:

♦ Create new jobs and an “engaged and inspired workforce.”

♦ Provide meaningful economic and fiscal impacts to city, county and state governments.

♦ Increase visitation for the city, region and state.

♦ Create a “lifestyle” city based on health, wellness and recreation.

In the next phase of the project, Hammes said, his company would plan to spend more than $1 million in devising a concrete development plan, which would also require “hundreds of thousands” of dollars in public funds — though not necessarily from only the city of Billings. He suggested that some of his company’s partners, including the Billings Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development, could also chip in.

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Councilman Mike Yakawich asked Dunn about the prospect of public funding, given a Billings Gazette story about the dwindling funds left in the downtown tax increment financing district.

Dunn said TIF funding would undoubtedly play a part, but given the scope of the new economic strategy, TIF funding might be a small part of overall financing. One concept he mentioned, which was used in Allentown, Penn., was a Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

He said it may be necessary to work with the state of Montana to reconfigure existing programs or to create new funding systems to deal with a project as big as the one envisioned by Hammes. Dunn said it might be necessary to make the state of Montana a key player in the discussion.

One last message he conveyed to the council — several times — was that it had only two choices: to embrace the inevitable and help the city realize substantial growth, or to, in effect, throw in the towel and put the burden of new revenues on the backs of existing taxpayers.

When your Last Best News correspondent left the City Council meeting shortly after 10 p.m. — already three and half hours into the meeting — seven council members had already weighed in, all with words of praise for the concept they had just heard about.

Chris Friedle, normally a pretty hard-headed fiscal conservative, said he wished the original developers had brought the message that Dunn delivered Monday. It would have met with much less opposition, he said.

Councilman Al Swanson said he was powerfully excited by what he heard, recalling his own career as a commercial and business developer who helped transform 15 city blocks in Oakland, Calif.

“It can be done,” he said.

Dunn said he couldn’t come up with specifics on every question thrown at him Monday, but only because the project was still in its early stages.

“I don’t have the answers tonight,” he said, “but I didn’t when we started in Greey Bay or Allentown, either.”

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