By Ed Kemmick
One Big Sky Center, a proposed development that would create the tallest building in Montana as the centerpiece of a $165 million project in downtown Billings, won the grudging support of the City Council last week.
On a 6-2 vote, with two absences and one abstention, the council approved a memorandum of understanding with the project developers, giving them until June 30 to work with city staff and the city’s legal and financial consultants to come up with a final development agreement.
Until then—as the developers, supporters and several City Council members said—the city will expose itself to very little risk and will need to spend relatively little money.
“This is so early in the project,” said Councilman Ryan Sullivan, echoing the sentiments of some of his colleagues. “It’s time to see what’s next. … Show me the money. Show me the project.”
The project is being proposed by MontDevCo, made up of three developers from Denver and Phoenix, whose plans call for a development centered on North 29th Street and First Avenue North that would include 100,000 square feet of office space, 36,5000 square feet of retail, 80 apartment units, a 150-room hotel, a 650-stall parking garage, a conference center and a pedestrian mall. The outdoor mall would take up a portion of the block of North 29th between First and Second avenues north, which would have to be vacated.
The City Council decided at its meeting on Oct. 24 to delay consideration of the MOU, partly because it did not have enough time to review an eight-page report prepared by Skipstead, a financial advisory firm headquartered in St. Paul, Minn.
The developers are asking for up to $35 million in tax increment district financing money from the city, which would be spent on aspects of the project that serve the larger community, including the pedestrian mall, the parking garage and the conference center.
The developers had originally intended to build only a hotel on the site of a parking lot at First Avenue and 29th Street, but the project expanded when they heard from the Downtown Billings Alliance that the downtown needed more parking and a conference center.
Monday’s City Could meeting was an unusual one, to put it mildly. The MOU was the fourth item on the regular agenda, and there was no public hearing planned on that item. However, before the council actually gets to the agenda, there is always a public comment period at which people can testify on any item for which no public hearing is scheduled.
Testimony is supposed to be limited to one minute for those commenting on a single agenda item, or up to three minutes for those testifying on several items. But Mayor Tom Hanel, who runs the meetings, never enforced the time limits, allowing people to talk at length.
And many of those who did speak were then subjected to prolonged questioning by members of the council. The upshot was that about 20 people ended up testifying for more than 3½ hours. In what might have been a first, Hanel called for a recess before the council had actually taken up the first item on the agenda.
When the council resumed its meeting it was 10:03—three hours and 33 minutes past the start time of 6:30.
But the council got to consideration of One Big Sky Center pretty quickly after the recess, and after hearing from several council members whose support was lukewarm, at best, the MOU was approved by Hanel, Sullivan, Shaun Brown, Dick Clark, Larry Brewster and Rich McFadden.
Only Chris Friedel and Michael Yakawich voted no. Brent Cromley abstained, saying the law firm he is associated with had done some work for the developers—Skip Ahern and M. Burke McHugh of Denver and Gregory Tatham of Phoenix, Ariz. Council members Angela Cimmino and Al Swanson were absent.
Most of those who spoke during the hearing that wasn’t really a public hearing were in favor of the project, saying that the downtown needed a project like this to attract and retain new residents and to spur further development.
Attorney Bill Cole, chairman of the Billings Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, said the preliminary agreement was like “being asked to go steady for a period of several months, not get married forever.” He said the developers were prepared to bring millions of dollars in outside investment to Billings, and might go elsewhere if spurned by Billings.
“We’re not the prettiest girl at the dance,” Cole said.
Similar comments were made by several self-described millennials, who said Billings needs to do something to attract people their age to Billings. One of them, Nicole King, said that if Billings didn’t do something to improve the downtown, she and people like her would move to more desirable places.
Hanel, a real estate agent, drew some groans when he reacted heatedly to the disparaging talk about the downtown, saying he would gladly sell the houses of people wanting to leave Billings.
This article originally appeared on Last Best News.