A union-led coalition wants to turn the Riverfront Triangle into a rallying point for affordability. Is anyone listening? 

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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.

click to enlarge The seven-acre wedge of land east of Orange Street, which has languished for decades, will soon be the site of a $150 million mixed-use development. Mark Anderlik, of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council, believes the development could exacerbate the low wages and high housing costs that have long plagued Missoula workers. - COURTESY CTA ARCHITECTS
  • courtesy CTA Architects
  • The seven-acre wedge of land east of Orange Street, which has languished for decades, will soon be the site of a $150 million mixed-use development. Mark Anderlik, of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council, believes the development could exacerbate the low wages and high housing costs that have long plagued Missoula workers.

"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."

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