After nearly 30 years of illuminating Billings’ tallest building, the signs on the First Interstate Tower are getting updated. Crews have started the process of removing the signs, and as soon as the weather cooperates, all four will be retired and replaced with newer technology.
Even with all the growth in Billings during the last three decades, signage is pretty much the only thing that’s changed in the downtown skyline.
The First Interstate Center capped the end of a building boom in downtown Billings — an era of the 1970s and ’80s in which new buildings erupted upwards. And then stopped.
The Granite Tower went up in 1975, quickly followed by the Norwest Bank building (now Wells Fargo Plaza) in 1977. Norwest claimed the top spot in the sky for a mere three years before the Sheraton Hotel (now the Crowne Plaza) took that honor with its completion in 1980.
Just five years after that, the First Interstate Center went online, becoming the tallest building in Montana, and it has held that spot for nearly three decades.
That era also included construction of Rocky Plaza in 1982, the Sage Tower in 1974, the Liberal Arts Building at MSU-Billings in 1972, and the Terrace apartments in 1972.
Why, then, did Billings experience such a rapid growth upwards, only to stagnate in stature for the next 30 years?
Simple economics, it turns out, holds the answer.
“I’m sure someone, even myself, would be very pleased to build another building,” said Harrison Fagg, the longtime Billings architect behind the former Sheridan Hotel and the Granite Tower. “But you have to rent it.”
In the 1970s and going into the 1980s, office space in downtown was at a premium. Billings developer Steve Corning noted that the surge of high-density buildings was fed by an oil boom at that time in the Williston Basin.
Not only that, he said, but it was an earlier Williston oil boom in the 1950s that brought the previous wave of taller buildings to Billings, leaving behind what we call today Transwestern 1, the U.S. Bank Tower and several other prominent downtown buildings.
If booms bring tall buildings, then it is consistent that Billings’ fourth-tallest building is still the Cereal Food Processor Inc. building. Built in 1917, it represents a time when wheat was booming in Montana because of a disruption of European agriculture during World War I.
Corning said even though we’re experiencing a new Williston oil boom, there are some differences this time that mean another tall building may not be on the immediate horizon for Billings.
For one thing, he said, big regional corporations located their offices in Billings last time, a practice we’re not seeing this time around.
“Corporate America is more focused on overhead than they were in the 1980s,” he said.
Without those big tenants, putting up a big building becomes impossible. A building like the First Interstate Center, for example, depends on a big anchor tenant like the bank to make it possible.
Joel Long partnered with First Interstate Bank to build the First Interstate Center, which opened in 1985.
It’s clear from talking to Long that he’s still proud of the building. He’s quick to rattle off all sorts of information about the efficiency of the heating and cooling system, the high-tech elevator upgrades and regular remodels.
As proud as he is of the building, though, he’s much more humble about his involvement with it, giving a lot of credit to First Interstate Bank.
When asked about the idea of “leaving his mark on the city,” the question struck him as odd.
“At the time we developed the building, it was something that was needed,” he said.
At the time, three Transwestern buildings existed, and they were looking at putting together land for a fourth 80,000-square-foot building.
“The bank was willing to be the anchor tenant for 60,000 square feet, so we added 80,000 to it, and started out with a 15-story building,” Long said. “And as the project got going, I added three floors, just because I felt that I could rent them over a fi-year period, and it just kind of came together.”
When asked if he thought First Interstate Center would last for 30 years as the tallest building in the region, Long said it wasn’t something he really thought about at the time.
“I guess no one has had the opportunity, or maybe the wherewithal, to take the risk,” he said.
And tall buildings are a risky business. Just as the building of the First Interstate Center was nearing completion, the market began to tumble.
“We actually brought it online in the lower part of our economy, so I had to work real hard to fill the building up with tenants,” Long said. “It wasn’t a slam-dunk you might say, but with hard work and good finances it paid off in the long run.”
The history of the market for office space downtown was a part of the discussion for Stockman Bank, as it made plans for its addition to the downtown Billings skyline. Its new building at North Broadway and Fourth Avenue North was finished towards the end of 2011.
Stockman President Wayne Nelson still remembers the crash from the ’80s.
“All the oil companies pulled out, so there was this glut of office space,” he said.
Once the bank was ready to put a new branch downtown, he said, a lot of factors went in to deciding how high they would build.
The bank closely watched the neighborhood, waiting on decisions regarding the Dude Rancher and the new library. Another major factor in determining the height of the new bank, Nelson said, was parking.
Originally the bank had been looking at a seven-story building, but ultimately decided on four stories when it became clear that the city had no plans to add parking near the site.
“There’s no sense in having a tall building without parking,” Nelson said.
Billings might not have gotten any taller over the past 30 years, but it certainly has increased its footprint. Even 20-somethings remember a time when Best Buy was the farthest thing west on King Avenue.
Corning said that for new companies coming to town, it simply makes economic sense to build with breathing room on the West End, close to the interstate, than to risk the capital with a large construction downtown.
He added that another factor that drives urban density is commute times, something that still isn’t an issue for Billings.
“When you’re basically a 20-minute drive from anywhere, the imperative isn’t there,” he said.
Although the imperative for high-density development isn’t there, some would like it to be.
Fagg, who besides being an architect was a state legislator from 1968 to 1984, once introduced legislation that would have used tax policy to push cities towards more high-density growth patterns.
The idea, he said, was that if it costs more for an area to receive services, such as pumping water and sewer back and forth from the West End, taxes should go up for those areas proportionately.
Fagg doubts, too, whether another highrise is in the near future for Billings.
“There’s still an awful lot of rental space on the market,” he said, adding that the office space from the old James F. Battin Courthouse is now available.
“That’s another 140,000 square feet in the market right now,” he said.
And Stockman Bank’s Nelson said many of the new businesses coming to town aren’t creating a lot of office jobs, so there’s nothing to demand any new tall buildings in downtown.
But with respect to Billings’ Central Business District, Nelson said the thing to watch in the next 10 to 20 years will be what happens in the East Billings Urban Renewal District.
The Big Sky Economic Development Authority continues to complete environmental studies on the area, and plans have been drawn up to turn the MetraPark area into “Exposition Gateway,” a grand entryway for the city.
Nelson said this, like any ambitious project, would take business leaders and all governments to get on the same page to move forward together.
But even when all the organizations are on the same page, he said, it might take the presence of a “visionary” figure to push the plan through to completion.