Raising the bar

Rarely do Missoula runners circle the cinder track in John H. Toole Park. Even Hellgate High School athletes have largely snubbed it, instead using Sentinel High School's more modern facilities.

"Obviously, from the mid-'80s to where we are today, a cinder/gravel track doesn't really meet their needs anymore, as you can imagine," says Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler.

But the park, which for nearly three decades has served as a practice space for Hellgate runners and football players under an agreement with the city, may soon become relevant again.

The city and Missoula County Public Schools are proposing significant upgrades to the riverfront park that lies between the end of Fourth Street and the Madison Street Bridge. They will likely include an all-season track surface, jump pits for high jump and pole vault, concrete circles for discus and shot-put, and a shed to store equipment like mats and hurdles.

"I suspect that there would be a lot of users in our community who would really enjoy the track surface, from wheelchair racers to race-walkers," Gaukler says.

She notes that the upgrades won't change Hellgate's current agreement with the city. It dates back to 1982, when the city acquired the land with its first open space bond, and stipulates that the field can't be used for competitive events, and leaves room for other public activities. Missoula's ultimate Frisbee community often plays pickup games there, for example. Gaukler says the improvements won't interfere with existing uses.

Alan Pfister, Hellgate's track and field coach, likens the current situation to telling basketball players to "go ahead and practice in the parking lot and we'll give you a hoop later."

"For eternity we've always bussed over to some other facilities for track practice, which has been a real struggle for a lot of kids," Pfister says.

He indicates that private contributors, not the school district, will pay for the improvements. About $10,000 has been raised already, he says, but he declines to estimate the total price tag.

City Council's Conservation Committee is tentatively scheduled to discuss the project on Mar. 30.

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