One Big Sky proponents look for way forward after failed vote | Billings Gazette

One Big Sky proponents look for way forward after failed vote | Billings Gazette

Come Thursday, city stakeholders will have the clearest indication yet of what the future may hold for One Big Sky District. 

It’s something to which all parties involved with the potential development deal are looking; a split vote by Billings City Council Monday night left a muddled and confused view of the project’s future. The council voted 5-5 not to renew its agreement with Landmark, the One Big Sky developer.

The plan lays out a framework for future development of downtown Billings, including projects that focus on tourism, health, business and civic engagement. It calls for $300 million of private investment in the projects after which public funding would kick in. 

On Thursday, proponents of One Big Sky will meet with state Sen. Roger Webb in an effort to finalize the language of a draft legislative bill that will create the financial mechanisms necessary to launch the One Big Sky District. To get off the ground, the project requires public funding after private investment in the development has reached a specific level. 

“As we sit today, there is no bill,” Webb said Tuesday afternoon. “All we have right now is a draft.”

And that draft has not yet come together in a way that Webb is comfortable carrying into the Legislature. So if the group can’t finalize the bill on Thursday, it’s likely no bill will be introduced this session, he said. 

“We’re trying to make it palatable for everyone,” he said. “The last thing I want is something that’s not going to work.”

If a bill is never introduced or one comes forward and it’s voted down by the Legislature, the city then would have no immediate way to offer the financial incentives needed to attract developers to One Big Sky projects.

The council’s vote Monday complicated the matter by sending a mixed signal to both the state Legislature and Landmark Development. Just two weeks earlier, the council approved Landmark’s framework for the One Big Sky District development in a 7-3 vote.

Reg Gibbs was the only council member to change his vote. (Roy Neese, who had voted in favor of the plan two weeks ago, was absent Monday night. Richard Clark, who was absent two weeks ago, voted against the contract renewal Monday night.)

“I still believe in the vision,” he said. “But the reassurances were not in place (in the contract) to protect the city of Billings.”

Gibbs believes that Landmark’s study which lays out the plan for Billings is too rosy and doesn’t include enough analysis of what the city or Landmark would do in a worst-case scenario.

As an example, he asked what would happen to One Big Sky projects if the national economy suddenly tanked like it did when the housing market crashed in 2007. 

“That was my great concern,” he said. “What if there’s a black swan?”

Billings Mayor Bill Cole worries about the message the vote sent to Landmark.  

“They may be left wondering if they’ve hitched their wagon to the right horse team,” he said. 

Bob Dunn, who heads up Landmark, did not return phone calls by press time Wednesday night. 

Steve Arveschoug, director of Big Sky Economic Development, is the local lead on the One Big Sky project and spoke on Tuesday with Dunn, hoping to gauge his support and reassure him Billings was still a smart investment. Dunn told Arveschoug he believes it still is. 

Arveschoug has also reached out to community partners like the Billings Chamber of Commerce and other business and industry leaders about the need to present a united front to the community, the Legislature and to Landmark.

The chamber penned a letter to the city council on Tuesday, encouraging council members to find ways to work with Landmark.

“On behalf of the One Big Sky District Strategy Partners, we encourage the City to open a dialogue with Mr. Dunn to determine if there is middle ground that can be reached,” the letter read. 

“This is hard — this is hard for any community,” Arveschoug said. “It’s a difficult conversation.” 

But, he added, “that kind of tension and friction can create opportunities to go forward.” 

Opposition has been strong. Community members Pam Ellis and Larry Seekins have presented their own report about the One Big Sky project, pointing to errors and inconsistencies in the One Big Sky study.  

For that reason, Cole said his goal now is to communicate to the Legislature and to Landmark that the city is indeed interested in the plan. 

“I want to do everything we can to keep this plan on track,” Cole said. “This is a huge opportunity we don’t want to lose.”

For that reason, Thursday’s meeting is vital. Cole said it’s critical that the bill gets drafted and through the Legislature. He’s called on the other members of the city council to speak out in support of the plan. 

Their voting record may not show close unity on the project, he said. But all of them have talked about the importance of smart development in the city and have expressed support for the plan or the idea behind the plan, Cole said. 

All sides are hoping for progress on Thursday when they meet with Webb. The latest draft has been completed for about two weeks and proponents have spent that time working to answer questions Webb has had about the bill. 

“I can’t make an intelligent determination until I get the facts I need,” Webb said. 

The bill is now a 42-page document and Webb receives correspondence every day from constituents opposed to it. 

Still, he said he loves the concept and sees it as a “great economic driver” for the state. 

“But the last thing I want to do is put an additional tax (on) people in Billings,” Webb said. 

Arveschoug agrees. He sees the concept behind One Big Sky as a powerful new economic tool for the state and one that can be crafted without raising taxes, even if that increases the degree of difficulty in getting the bill drafted. 

“This is tough work,” he said.