$150M downtown development moving closer to reality

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By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

A project proposed for a vacant piece of real estate in downtown Missoula continues to move forward, developers said Wednesday, though efforts to pin down financial models remain a moving target.

For the past several years, Hotel Fox Partners has been working on plans to build a hotel and conference center on the Riverfront Triangle, a seven-acre parcel of land on the corner of Orange Street and West Broadway.

The $150 million project would also include housing, retail and office space, with a portion of it dedicated to medical use. If successful, the development could infuse the city with an estimated $32 million in new visitor spending.

“It’s downtown Missoula taking that next step,” said Jeffry Crouch, senior project manager with CTA Architects. “We have mixed use with office, residential, retail and a hotel. It’s going to be a very dynamic new part of downtown.”

The city granted Hotel Fox Partners exclusive rights to develop the property in 2011. The plan has grown over time to include a 200-room hotel and large conference center capable of drawing regional events.

Efforts continue between developers and city planners to rezone the area to simplify future phases of the project. The development would encompass several city blocks on the western gateway into the downtown district.

“We have an opportunity for a public-private partnership that we believe makes sense for the long term,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said of the conference center. “It creates another destination and makes us competitive in ways we don’t believe we are today.”

Exactly what shape a public-private partnership would take in making the conference center pencil out has yet to be determined. Several possible scenarios have been presented over the past eight months, each offering unique risks and benefits.

“We have been meeting very regularly lately to try and hammer out the details of how this is going to work,” said Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “We’re trying to put together a package that makes sense for everyone so we can move this forward.”

Bill Kruger, a consultant with Conventions, Sports and Leisure International, conducted a conference center feasibility study and presented it to the City Council last year.

The study found that Missoula could sustain a moderate 30,000-square-foot facility, so long as it included abundant break-out space. A conference center of that size could generate $16 million in new economic output for the city and its businesses.

“There’s a lot of ways to do public-private partnerships, but the whole goal of that is to build a larger space than what you would have otherwise gotten from the private sector going it alone,” Kruger said. “It brings more visitors, spending and tax dollars into the community than what you would have otherwise gotten.”Capture2

After conducting similar studies in other communities, CSL has found that a conference center doesn’t work in all locations, though that’s not the case in Missoula, Kruger said.

The mixed-use project proposed for the Riverfront Triangle and its location in downtown Missoula serve to enhance the project’s success.

“There have been cases where we came back and said a project wasn’t feasible,” Kruger said. “We’re not doing the study and just coming up with an affirmative conclusion. We feel there’s a market, particularly given the compelling nature of the destination and the mixed-use project we’re talking about.”

Crouch said the project has grown to attract the interest of future tenants.

“We’ve transitioned from just creating visions and ides of what this place could be to actually speaking with businesses and companies interested in being on this land,” Crouch said. “That’s a real shift in the reality of this project.”