By every measure, the Riverfront Triangle project is audacious. There's the $150 million price tag (the largest planned investment ever in a Montana city), the footprint (four city blocks), the jobs (500) and the "innovative" public-private agreement that has no precedent in the state.
It's saying something, then, that the deal's most audacious figure isn't actually a party to it.
Mark Anderlik is a union man, president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council. He works in the Union Hall downtown behind a big, L-shaped desk that's solid and sort of shabby, colored a sickly yellow-brown. Most everything in Anderlik's office is that color except the metal filing cabinets, which are gray, like Anderlik's hair, which is stretched over his scalp into a ponytail. His uniform includes jeans and a blue plaid button-up.
The night before, a major unionization vote at the South Carolina Boeing plant had failed. Anderlik blames the company and state politicians, who publicly opposed the effort. They should have stayed out of it, he says. "Just shut the fuck up and let the workers exercise their rights."
Anderlik has spent 16 years trying "to break the grip of low-wage work" in Missoula, which he sees as the city's biggest problem. He's not wrong. Household earnings have been virtually stagnant for 25 years, while the cost of housing has increased faster than in almost any other metro area in the country, as economists from the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research recently told city officials. Anderlik believes unions could help provide a solution, if only the deck weren't so stacked against them. Organizing in Missoula has been an uphill fight, particularly in the service sector. If you haven't heard of Unite Here!, the union for which Anderlik is a regional executive officer, that might be because it counts only 250 members statewide. He says he's tried to organize hotel workers in Missoula, only to have operators quash the employees' efforts.
But if management has made work difficult for Anderlik, he's also been known to make it difficult on himself. Last summer, the MACLC settled a human rights complaint filed by its own political organizer, who claimed Anderlik had created a hostile work environment. Resolution of the case was delayed after Anderlik showed up alone to represent the labor council at a settlement hearing, the Indy reported at the time. He hadn't told his board of directors or, apparently, their attorney what was going on.
There's a sense, outside of his coalition, that Anderlik overplayed his hand on the Riverfront Triangle development.
For those willing to throw punches at the powerful, a certain brashness comes with the territory. The trick is knowing how to make those punches land.
When city officials and businesspeople look at Hotel Fox Partners' plan for a hotel, conference center and commercial and residential complex along the riverfront, they see the transformation of a decrepit former landfill into a shining economic engine that will reshape downtown. Anderlik sees a potential menace: a massive, taxpayer-subsidized instrument of wage slavery that caters to the business class while making Missoula even less livable for the nearly 40 percent of residents who work in service industries. Yes, "slavery" and "servitude" are Anderlik's words for the working conditions of hospitality employees in Montana—at least those whose bosses cross him.
And right now, with respect to the Riverfront Triangle, Anderlik feels crossed.
The project achieved a major milestone earlier this month when the Missoula City Council signed off on its main phase. Under the terms of the master development agreement, the city will sell Hotel Fox Partners the land for its hotel for $2.3 million and commit up to $15.3 million in public financing to purchase the conference center and parking garage once they're built.
Anderlik and his coalition wanted city leaders to condition the deal on a requirement that Hotel Fox Partners sign a "labor peace agreement"essentially, a separate contract between the developer and Unite Here! that would set ground rules for future unionization efforts in exchange for the union's pledge not to disrupt hotel operations. His argument purports to be a practical one: The city's financial stake in the project could be threatened by future labor disputes between employees and the hotel, so the city ought to require the developers to keep the peace.
Such an agreement would have ensured that the eventual hotel managers do what Boeing officials in South Carolina didn't: Shut up and let Unite Here! do its work. In other words, it would give Anderlik a fighting chance to turn the Riverfront Triangle into the beachhead for organized labor he's long sought, so he could finally gain ground on Missoula's affordability problem. No agreement, and Anderlik would crack open the union playbook.
City Council wasn't down with Anderlik's demand. They rejected his proposal unanimously, even as each councilmember and Mayor John Engen spoke up in support of the union cause.
In response, Anderlik is balling his fists. "We're going to have a big fight on our hands," he says. "That fight is going to affect the city's finances."
But can he really make the city or Hotel Fox Partners flinch?
Anderlik says his coalition wasn't looking for a confrontation. Under the banner of the Missoula Community Benefits Coalition, they've been trying to shape the Riverfront Triangle project for five years, ever since Hotel Fox Partners was given exclusive development rights to the city-owned portion of the land.
In addition to Anderlik's labor groups, coalition members include the Montana Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Bike Walk Alliance of Missoula and the Missoula Institute for Sustainable Transportation. The alliance, Anderlik says, was born out of a recognition that environmental, transportation, housing and labor issues all interact to shape Missoulians' quality of life.
Rather than oppose the then-fledgling Riverfront project, the coalition sought to negotiate with the developers during the project's planning phase to advocate for elements that would benefit the wider community, not just business. That strategy reflects an approach to community organizing that, while new to Montana, has taken root in cities around the country during the last 15 years, particularly with respect to large, public-private urban development deals like the Riverfront Triangle.
The idea is that when enough community groups band together, they gain the clout to negotiate directly with developers for public benefits that city officials either can't legally require or can't be relied upon to require—anything from affordable housing commitments to minority hiring targets to setting aside space for daycare. The promises are typically bundled into legally binding contracts called community benefits agreements, or CBAs. Armed with the coalition's public support, private developers are then in a better position to get the tax relief or land deal they need from the city government. Janet Fiero, of the Sierra Club, describes the process as "doing good things up front."
Such coalitions are necessary, proponents argue, in part because developers have tended to outmaneuver local governments when making deals involving public resources.
"You wouldn't actually see so many campaigns for private community benefits agreements if cities did a better job of negotiating themselves," says Julian Gross, a senior fellow at PolicyLink, an Oakland, California-based social and economic justice research group. Gross has negotiated some 20 CBAs on behalf of cities and coalitions nationwide.
Members of the Missoula coalition agree. They point to the redevelopment in progress at the Old Sawmill District and the purchase of the Osprey stadium as examples of the community getting the short end of the stick. Developers win city officials' support by "dangling the carrots" of jobs and an increased tax base, says John Wolverton of the Bike Walk Alliance, "but I think sometimes what we gain out of that is not worth some of the detrimental effects that can come out of development."
The stakes are particularly high at the Riverfront Triangle, they say, in that the development will go a long way toward determining whether Missoula's city center becomes a place where average people can afford to both live and work.
"This is a once-in-50-year project for Missoula," Anderlik says, "and it's an opportunity lost—that's for damn sure—if we're not able to get the most out of these agreements."
Hotel Fox Partners made it clear from the outset that they weren't willing to sign any agreements, coalition leaders say, but last fall, the developers agreed to meet with them. The two sides reviewed the coalition's list of requests over a series of seven two-hour meetings. Many of the coalition's proposals were relatively modest: for instance, a request for employee locker rooms in the hotel facilities for employees who bike to work. Some ideas, like a proposal to capture and reuse greywater, were determined to be unfeasible, and others amounted to assurances that the developers would adhere to existing law. Everyone described the meetings as "constructive," and agreed to follow up throughout the process.
But the conversation came to a halt when the topic turned to labor issues. Robin O'Day, vice president of communications for Farran Realty Partners, the local developer that is part of the Hotel Fox team, calls Anderlik's labor peace agreement "an exceptional ask." She says the terms included in the Unite Here! template circulated by Anderlik would almost certainly lead future hotel staff to unionize—a decision she thinks should be left to the employees. "It's not up to us to make that decision," she says.
Stonewalled by the developer, the coalition tried to get one of the most progressive city councils in memory to include the labor peace agreement requirement in its own dealmaking with the developers. Such requests are fairly common, says PolicyLink's Gross. "It's certainly within the government's power in this kind of project."
In this case, however, Anderlik's demand was met with universal skepticism by city leaders.
Missoula Redevelopment Agency board member Daniel Kemmis says his discomfort with the coalition's request is despite his sympathy for the importance of a living wage. Kemmis, a former Missoula mayor and Montana Speaker of the House, says public involvement is crucial to addressing affordability. But he also says that the coalition did a poor job in making its case for what struck him as a "blunt instrument."
"At this point," Kemmis says, "I'm not convinced that the specific proposal for what's called a labor peace agreement is the only or the best way to accomplish the objectives of the coalition."
Engen tried to "mediate" with Anderlik at the last minute, but both say they walked away feeling only more frustrated. Then, as council was about to vote on the master development agreement, Engen delivered a speech recounting his parents' union ties and his own belief in the value of organized labor. He also mentioned that he had recently inquired about wages at Missoula's DoubleTree by Hilton (a hotel Anderlik claims to have tried and failed to organize). The owner reported to Engen that the average wage was in line with the city's living wage standard for municipal employees, which would put it around $12/hr. That's significantly higher than the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported median wage for housekeepers in Montana ($9.78/hr), service workers ($10.48/hr) or food preparers ($9.28/hr).
A single adult working full-time in Missoula would need to earn $10.30/hr in order to make basic expenses, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's living wage calculator. For a family of three, each parent would need to earn $12.40/hr.
It's not as though the city hasn't left its mark on the Riverfront proposal. MRA Assistant Director Chris Behan is downright giddy as he points out each aspect of the site plan on the conceptual renderings kept in the agency's conference room.
City officials have been trying to redevelop the site for decades, as evidenced by an eight page, single-spaced "background paper" Behan produced to explain the history. The mayor says it's been an office joke that Behan wouldn't be allowed to retire until a deal for the Triangle was signed.
Behan says the original 2011 request for proposals process was specifically designed so the city could find a flexible partner rather than a developer with a predetermined project. He believes the city found that developer in Hotel Fox Partners. "I don't want to just build up all these guys," he says, "but so far they've chosen well."
MRA was pleased with the initial concept for a riverfront hotel and small conference center, but Engen stepped in to pitch a more ambitious venture. After the city and the developers commissioned a feasibility study, they agreed to pursue a conference center that's roughly three times as large as the initial proposal, and will be the largest space of its kind between Spokane and Billings. The agreement approved this month calls for the city to purchase the conference center using tax-increment bonds, then contract with Hotel Fox Partners to operate it. That way, the 29,000-square-foot facility will generate tax revenue while shielding the city's general fund from any operating deficits.
The developers' plan also features condos and rental units, including an unspecified amount of "workforce housing" to be built in later phases of construction, though the city's master agreement does not require it.
"There's an amount of faith you have to have, or these projects aren't going to happen," Behan says.
Likewise, Engen is enthusiastic about the deal. "It extends our riverfront and the public spaces around that riverfront, it's a job creator, it's a property tax driver, it cleans up blight," he says. "There's just a lot to be had here."
Open the mobile app Fair Hotel, and hundreds of green pinpoints across a map of North America show hotels where employees are represented by Unite Here!. A few of the markers are red, which means the facility is the target of a labor dispute and should be boycotted. There's only one marker between Washington and Minnesota. It's in Butte, and it's red.
The Quality Inn and Suites is Unite Here's only unionized hotel in the state, and it also happens to be the subject of a years-long boycott campaign. The dispute stems from Anderlik's belief that the hotel's former and current owners conspired to bust the union before the business changed hands in 2011 (the owners were later dinged for unfair labor practices by the National Labor Relations Board). Anderlik still gets riled up when he talks about the hotel.
"They want slaves, basically," he says. "There's no other way to put it."
If it becomes necessary, Anderlik says, he's prepared to call in national organizers to orchestrate a boycott of the eventual Hotel Fox. Boycotts, picket lines and vague statements about legal action are among the tools Anderlik is threatening to deploy if labor issues continue to be sidelined as the Triangle project progresses.
City officials have said that more opportunities to shape the project lie ahead, but Anderlik isn't optimistic. By approving the land deal, the city has already played its strongest hand, he says—and signaled where its priorities lie.
Community benefits coalitions rely on credibility for their power, and an escalation of rhetoric isn't likely to win Anderlik's group much favor in city circles. "What does the coalition bring in terms of leverage here?" Engen says. "If it's the threat of pickets, that may not be the best place to start in terms of cooperation.
"The question here is, does the developer feel in any way it needs the blessing of the community benefits coalition to move forward, and does the City Council or the mayor believe that's a stamp of approval it needs for a project to move forward? Today, based on what I know, my answer to that generally is going to be no," Engen says. "I think the coalition is made up of good people who want to do good things and have good values, but I got elected to do a job here, and so I've got to do it."
Anderlik also has a job to do. He says the city's action on the Riverfront only underscores why his coalition's work is necessary. "When we get hard down into class issues in this city, the progressives on council and the mayor disappear," he says. If current city leaders can't appreciate the urgency of working Missoulians' plight, Anderlik says, he'll come at them with everything he's got. "People are desperate," he says. "These are desperate times."