Roughly two dozen community members and local officials gathered in the Missoula City Council chambers April 17 for the first full meeting of the newly established Community Quality of Life Advisory Committee. Mayor John Engen, along with representatives from the University of Montana administration and student senate, addressed topics ranging from bus system improvements to potential increases in off-campus student housing. But David Werner's hand was first up, and he wasted no time raising issue with UM's plans for future expansionstarting with a new Missoula College building at what's currently the UM golf course.
Werner, a member of the citizen group Advocates for Missoula's Future, reiterated what critics of the university's South Campus Master Plan have been saying for nearly six yearsnamely that he'd prefer Missoula College be located near Fort Missoula. "If paired with the Fort Missoula Regional Park plan," Werner said, referring to a massive city initiative to revitalize open space at the Fort, "that would be a beautiful area. The city needs that." Werner and his cohorts have been clear: They're not opposed to a new Missoula College building. They just don't feel sacrificing UM's golf course, or any of the open space below Mount Sentinel, is the right move.
Debate over the fate of UM's golf course has waxed and waned for decades, but recent developments in the Montana Legislature have revived the topic. Just one day before Werner's comments, the Senate passed an amended state funding bill that included a $32 million allocation for construction of a new Missoula College. The House approved the measure April 20. Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, was the only Democrat in both houses to oppose the Missoula College amendment.
Should Gov. Steve Bullock sign the bill, the university's next step will be to conduct a string of public meetings and gather input on how best to proceed, says Peggy Kuhr, UM's vice president for integrated communications.
"We know there are conversations that have to be had," Kuhr says, "and we look forward to it."
While Advocates for Missoula's Future will almost certainly be involved in those discussions, the group isn't counting on public testimony to change the university's decision to build below Mount Sentinel. According to an email shared with the Independent last week, Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades has committed to representing the Advocates pro bono in an effort to stop what UM admits is the first phase toward additional expansion.
Advocates member Ian Lange believes the group has amassed plenty of material to challenge the university's current proposal. Much of the work has focused on undermining UM's reasons for deeming the nearly 51 acres it owns near Fort Missoula unfeasible for future expansion. First off, Lange says, the claim that floodplain issues reduce the acreage appropriate for development is a nonstarter. The Advocates have repeatedly pointed to county maps that show only three of the acres owned by UM fall in the floodplain. The group alleges this leaves "ample room" for the consolidation of the existing Missoula College campuses at the Fort and on South Avenue.
The Advocates have also challenged a list of historic and archeological considerations UM says "further constrain building opportunities at this location." They cite numerous consultants who have found that the university's property at the Fort doesn't retain historic integrity, despite findings of numerous artifacts at various sites over the past three decades. H.D. Hampton, a former professor who has led digs at the site in the past, wrote in a letter to the Advocates that UM's assertions that these historical artifacts would prevent any development is a "small, pink herring."
UM, however, believes these points fail to address the larger concerns regarding infrastructure needs at the Fort. Any expansion near Fort Missoula would require extending sewer service along South Avenue at significant cost. UM would likely meet opposition from Target Range residents over increased traffic and decreased open space.
Most parties agree that, no matter where UM decides to place Missoula College, neighbors will raise concerns. Rep. David "Doc" Moore, R-Missoula, voted against the funding measure for the same reasons the Advocates have spoken up against the South Campus. He feels addressing existing concerns could prove simple.
"I think if the U wanted to defuse the situation, they would just go around publicly tomorrow and say, 'We're going to do a full EIS,'" Moore says. "That would tremendously defuse what's going on in the community, because if we're going to do a project of that scale and that amount of impact on so many neighborhoods, let's do it right."
Kuhr doesn't deny that the new Missoula College building would alter the golf course, nor that it marks the first step to eventually closing the course entirely. But UM and Missoula College both need room to grow, she says, and South Campus would provide easier connectivity to UM's main campus. According to the university, 532 Missoula College students took classes on the main campus in fall 2012. Nearly 750 students from the main campus took classes at Missoula College.
Kuhr says the new building will likely occupy 7 to 10 acres on the South Campus. What programs will be housed there "will be decided through the design phase," she says. But with the funding bill still unsigned, UM is trying not to get too far ahead of itself.
"We've been very clear all along ... that we and the Board of Regents are committed to a South Campus development plan, and that it goes beyond one buildingMissoula College," Kuhr says, adding that UM estimates expansion as a whole would require 210 acres. "Obviously we think there are more studies that need to be done, and the results of those studies [will] help us as we decide where we're going in the future."
She adds that if citizens want to revisit the issues with Fort Missoula, "we're happy to talk about it." And while much remains uncertain about Missoula College and South Campus, one thing is clear: The debate will continue even after Bullock makes his decision.
"I think it will be passed," Lange says. "And then, we'll go to court. I hope I'm wrong."