Raising $1.5 million over the next two to three years is important for the Big Sky Economic Development Authority (EDA) to be competitive with other cities in incentivizing new business to come to Yellowstone County and to aid existing businesses to grow.
But at the same time it is important that EDA shore up its foundation to make sure it is “sustainable.”
Augmenting an existing “opportunity fund,” which currently has about $430,000 in it, vies in importance with funding an operating reserve for the agency. Board members discussed at length, at a recent meeting, which fund should have the highest priority.
Jim Walker president of EDA said that he thought the top priority should be building the reserves, because unless the organization can operate there won’t be any staff to oversee the development of any opportunities. The need for the reserve fund was underscored, he said, by the fact that EDA’s sister organization, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) suffered a shortfall this year.
“Our operating costs have increased so an operating fund would be my number one priority. I want to make sure that the asset continues to grow,” said Walker.
EDA/EDC Director Steve Arveschoug said that his suggestion to build an Opportunity Fund,” was “not to the exclusion of having to work on operating reserves.” He suggested potential resources to build the operating reserves, which included requesting the imposition of the full allowable mill levy from county commissioners, and to divert incentive payments, that are currently being paid to GE and Bresnan, once their commitment has been fulfilled.
The staff made the case of the need for funds to pursue “job creating opportunities” by refining the business expansion efforts, including recruitment, and to revitalize and redevelop the East Billings Urban Renewal District (EBURD).
Another board member told the staff, “You are our opportunity. The money should go into the operating fund.”
Among the potential opportunities for which Arveschoug hopes to be prepared is the possibility of reviving the Montana Business Incubator, and to pursue some collaborative partnerships with other organizations in the community, such as the Beartooth RC&D. Beartooth RC& D serves a seven county area in economic development efforts, but recently lost their federal funding for one employee.
Arveschoug said that he didn’t know how such partnerships might be structured, but believes it is important to explore all possibilities.
Board member John Whitman, who expressed concern about how Beartooth or any other entity would pay for any services they need from EDA, pointed out that the situation of Beartooth demonstrates the importance of being “self reliant.”
Jeremy Vanatta, who oversees recruitment and business expansion efforts by the agency, pointed out that in comparison to other communities, EDA has very few dollars to use to incentivize businesses to come to the community or to fund infrastructure that might be needed by a business that wants to relocate or expand.
He said that while EDA allocates about $40,000 in its budget for recruitment needs other communities are spending millions. Even in Montana the competition is stiff. Great Falls allocates $150,000 and Missoula is in the process of conducting their own campaign to raise $3.2 million, of which they have already raised $2.3 million.
Vanatta said that $100,000 for an incentive fund is “bare bones,” $250,000 would be “adequate” and $400,000, “optimum.”
In comparing Yellowstone County to other counties, however, it was noted that they are trying to develop services and resources that EDA already has. EDA benefits from having a dedicated mill levy that helps fund the agency which other communities lack, they said.
Among the goals that Vanatta identified as requiring additional funding is to target more precisely what kinds of business to recruit, to implement marking strategies, and to develop more “break through” marketing materials to draw attention to the community, and to work with the media in drawing attention to the county.
Travel is important, too, he said, because while marketing materials and a website are beneficial, at some point “we need to visit them or to bring them here.” Also, it is important to have “multiple annual business prospecting missions,” and to develop programs which would bring prospects into contact with the state, such as going on fishing trips with the Governor.
EDA staffer, Patty Nordland, updated the board members on what is happening in revitalization efforts for the EBURD.
There are 16 parcels in the district that are eligible to apply for Phase II of Brownfield assessment funding. Brownfields are properties determined to be in need of environmental mitigation to bring them back into useable condition.
The staff continues to help in facilitating the development of the federal office building in the EBURD area. She said that according to GSA (Government Services Agency) finalists will present their proposal for the project in Denver the first week of May, and the project will be awarded to the successful developer by July.
Funding is being secured to conduct a Conceptual Development/Design for the extreme east end of the EBURD – the area directly across Expo Drive from Metra Park. They have acquired $50,000 from the Montana Department of Commerce Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund Planning Grant program. And, the property owners in the district, members of the Billings Industrial Revitalization District (BIRD), have recommended to the city to approve $25,000 from tax increment finance funds to help fund the planning. An additional $25,000 needs to be secured in order to proceed with the planning effort that will be done by the City County Planning Department.
The conversion to two way streets in the EBURD, involving 2nd and 3rd Avenues North from North 13 St. to North 22nd Street, will be done this summer with a target completion date set for the fall.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103