Following immediately upon the release of a survey that concludes that Billings has need for a wide range of sport facilities, the South Billings Urban Renewal District (SBURD) informed the Billings City Council that they have the financial wherewithal, and want to build them – as soon as possible.

Steve Zeier, SBURD administrator, informed the city council within hours after a public review of the sports survey that the SBURD board would like the City Council to include in its 2019 budget, provisions that would allow SBURD to negotiate for land, do a site concept development plan, designs and cost estimates.

The development of facilities for swimming, ice and indoor courts, would serve the needs of local athletes as well as draw tournaments and exhibition meets that would bring visitors to Billings and generate economic growth, according to Brian Connolly, managing principal for Victus Advisors, in reviewing a “Yellowstone County Sports Facility Market Needs Assessment.”

Victus was commissioned by a group of “stakeholders” including the Montana Department of Commerce, Visit Billings, Laurel Aquatic Recreation Complex, Laurel Urban Renewal Agency, South Billings Urban Renewal Association, Billings Aquatics Club, and Montana Swimming, to engage the local sports community and user groups to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the Yellowstone County sports market.

They were asked to do an inventory and identify potential improvements, estimate economic impacts, and to make recommendations about how to proceed.

The basic conclusions of the survey were that:

An indoor sports center would produce the largest economic/fiscal impacts of the three facility development options. It would also be the most cost-effective to build at about $10 million. An indoor sports facility providing courts for such things as basketball and volley ball, holds the potential to be operated by a private third-party with no public operating contributions.

A venue for a 2-sheet ice arena would generate about the same economic impact as a competitive swim center. However, the ice arena would likely be more cost-effective to build than the swim center. An ice arena could generate a positive operating income under private, non-profit operations.

A competitive swim center would generate similar economic impacts as a 2-sheet ice arena, however it is projected to be the most expensive facility to build, and would likely require significant annual operating subsidies.

The Victus Advisors advised that building one or more indoor sports facilities in the South Billings Urban Renewal District could be “a financially feasible and time-saving option for constructing new indoor sports facilities in Yellowstone County without relying on a mill levy vote.”

The EBURD’s proposal would be to build all three facilities in the EBURD area.

Zeier said the project would require two-thirds to three- fourths public funds with the rest having to be raised by the private sector.

After applying the EBURD’s revenue, derived through its tax increment district (TIF), there would still be a need to issue bonds for perhaps $25 million, which would be repaid over a 20 year period as future TIF revenues accrued. 

Zeier estimated that they would have to spend $1.25 million on land, and $4 million to do improvements and infrastructure development.

The SBURD proposal would include $1.7 million to $2 million to do other projects in the area including lights and artificial turf for Amend Park, which Victus suggested were low-hanging fruit in terms of things that could be done for minimal cost that would result in immediate benefits to the city’s capacity to host sports.

General discussion about how to build the three facilities seemed to suggest that they would not all be in one building, but might form a complex. Location would be identified in the proposed site study, but Zeier noted, there is a ten-acre parcel located near Amend Park that might be considered. Also, he said that Inner Circle, the Florida-based company that owns the Red Lion (the former Holiday Inn & Convention Center) conveyed to him that they were interested in being part of the planning and that “everything is on the table.” “That sounds very promising,’ said Zeier. Located at 5500 Midland Road, the Red Lion is located within the SBURD boundaries.

Inner Circle has put on hold plans to rebuild the convention center until it becomes clear what is going to happen with the proposed development of a downtown convention center in One Big Sky District.

The developers had a preliminary plan developed by Sanderson Stewart and A&E Architects for a $45.5 million convention center, including a $10 million parking garage. After razing the existing structure, they proposed a two story convention center with a total of 80,000 square feet of space for ballrooms and flexible wall systems for assembly meeting space and meeting room breakout spaces. They estimated a two year period for building the project.

Excited at the prospect that Inner Circle owners may be interested in the sports facility project, Zeier said that while the former 43,000 square foot convention building will never be used for a convention center, it could perhaps hold some potential in meeting the needs of a sports facility.