Facility fever 

Sizing up the latest events center proposal

Locals heard a familiar plea last week when consultants from Midwest-based Hunden Strategic Partners recommended that Missoula consider the Interstate 90 corridor as the optimal location for a new multipurpose events center. Civic leaders have long cited the area's inability to host events like state wrestling tournaments or certain nationally touring performances without such a facility, and last week's presentation clearly echoed similar needs.

click to enlarge A map provided by the Missoula Events Center steering committee shows four proposed locations for a 120,000-square-foot facility in Missoula. The proposal now enters a second phase focused in part on long-term funding sources.
  • A map provided by the Missoula Events Center steering committee shows four proposed locations for a 120,000-square-foot facility in Missoula. The proposal now enters a second phase focused in part on long-term funding sources.

Less clear, but certainly part of the project's introductory pitch, was an explanation of how the so-called Missoula Events Center (MEC) differs from competing plans for other large-scale local venues, including a downtown performing arts center and renovations at the Western Montana Fairgrounds.

"It feels real good," says John Riley, co-chair of the MEC steering committee, "because I think this may be as far along as we've ever come in this project. I think the town is looking at it and embracing it with a pretty open eye."

The MEC steering committee launched its efforts this spring, at first appearing on the periphery of other local development projects. Missoula's Board of County Commissioners approved an independent feasibility study in February and the committee hired Hunden, a company specializing in "destination development" with offices in Chicago and Beverly Shores, Ind.

Hunden's feasibility study concluded the best spot for a new facility is west of town, near Reserve Street or Missoula International Airport. The company also recommended a size for MEC—around 120,000 square feet—and possible uses, including trade shows, concerts and sports tournaments. Riley says the second phase of the study will focus on cost and potential long-term funding sources. To date, Riley says the committee has paid nearly $30,000 for the study through private donations.

The MEC is unaffiliated with the Missoula Performing Arts Center (PAC), a project that fell abruptly silent once City Council deemed it too expensive during public meetings last year. PAC board member Jim Valeo says the idea is far from abandoned and simply on "low-burner" until the economy picks up.

"It is not an idea we've given up," Valeo says. "But anytime you try to raise the kind of money we're talking about for the performing arts center, you need a substantial lead donor. And we have as yet been unable to identify and secure that party."

The plans for a performing arts center, as they stood last year, favored a city-owned spot on Orange and Front streets and required funding of approximately $60 million. Valeo says a portion of that money would come from private donors, but fellow board member Tom Boone adds the project would also likely call for a substantial public bond contribution.

"That obviously scared a lot of people away," Boone says. "Just the preliminary estimates of how expensive it would be if you had an adequate performing arts center of a size that Missoula doesn't have right now."

Boone says an events center and a performing arts center would differ drastically both in size and intended use. The former would house a multitude of events from concerts to boat shows, while the latter would serve as a venue for local plays and dance shows, and mainly be used by the public schools.

"I think competition, either for money or for users, is the least of our problems," Valeo says. "Fundraising is the big problem for everybody, and I could even argue that the two facilities...the PR from one would be beneficial for the other. In an ideal world, we'd have both in the community."

The MEC could have a more immediate impact on a separate redevelopment project at the Western Montana Fairgrounds. The county approved a feasibility study for that location in August 2008 and hired Crandall Arambula, a Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm that has worked on multiple projects in Missoula. Two of Crandall Arambula's three designs, which were presented to the public in April, accounted for a 170,000-square-foot multiuse events center on the grounds. The county has paid the firm $61,000 for its work to date.

Hunden's study considered the fairgrounds for the MEC, but listed it third out of four possible locations. Fair Manager Scot Meader doesn't see that as an immediate cause for alarm, pointing out that neither project has reached a definitive stage.

Dale Bickell, the county's chief administrative officer, says Crandall Arambula and Hunden intend to swap information on their respective projects as each firm continues its work.

Despite the buzz generated by Hunden's presentation, Riley cautions that all considerations for the MEC remain on the table.

"The fairgrounds are still an option, that's what I think people need to realize," Riley says. "We just want to build an events center and build it in the right place. If you don't have professional management and you don't have the right location, you have a facility that can't accomplish the things you want it to accomplish."

More than anything, Riley says the steering committee must focus its immediate efforts on addressing the one issue that has stalled every similar project to date—money.

"There are a lot of things we need to take into consideration," Riley says. "We want to take a look at what money is out there, whether it's from the state or a federal perspective as well...We're going to take a look at all of those things in Phase II."

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