Going, going, gone? 

During an otherwise uneventful real estate auction, Washington state developer Derek Stebner scored a plot of land near St. Patrick’s Hospital for the princely sum of $1.87 million, a federal bankruptcy court announced last week.

The eye-bulging going price of the Riverfront Triangle property, which once housed a tire store, far exceeded the minimum asking price of $600,000—and produced a noticeable cringe among supporters of a Missoula Performing Arts Center (PAC).

Among a laundry list of things that would need to happen for the proposed $60 million PAC to materialize, the city would have to donate land next door to the Stebner acquisition. And thanks to Stebner’s purchase price, that parcel is now more valuable than before.

“How much is our land worth?” as Council member Stacy Rye puts it. “I think giving away that land is not a good finance decision.”

According to Mayor John Engen, a recent appraisal puts the city’s Riverfront Triangle parcel at nearly $3 million—much higher than expected.

Engen won’t rule out the possibility of giving the land to the PAC, but he points out that the reassessed property could also serve as a bargaining chip in future land swaps. For example, the city could trade the land for a parcel at the former Champion mill site, a potential spot to build a new police headquarters.

“Our responsibility is recognizing that we have value there,” Engen says. “I think it’s important to get some real community good out of [the site].”

The PAC’s strongest supporters say they haven’t given up yet, but the sale further darkens an already dismal situation. In the final moments of 2007, questions emerged over the project’s long-run operating costs, reducing the former cacophony of pro-PAC arguments to a hum.

“Yes, we need this facility, but the cost is hard to deal with,” says Missoula Symphony Orchestra member Jodi Allison-Bunnell. The musician says she applauds the efforts of supporters, but cited “bond saturation” among the list of daunting challenges. The proposal would require passage of a $20 million levy to take off.
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