City approves $100M downtown events center and hotel; construction set for July

The city of Missoula signed off on an agreement Wednesday giving a local developer the rights to construct a hotel and events center on a prime piece of riverfront property, calling it a game changer for the downtown district and Missoula’s reputation as a cultural hub.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency, followed later in the day by the City Council, approved the agreement, transferring the development rights from Hotel Fox Partners to Clark Fork Riverfront Properties.

The latter is owned by Nick and Robin Checota, who placed the downtown project’s price tag at roughly $100 million.

“It’s a large space for events that we don’t currently have – a civic-like center,” Checota said. “It’s an opportunity for us to set the stage and tone for an inevitable development along the Broadway corridor and down on the river trail, and to think about that corridor from the beginning as a very pedestrian and very active corridor.”

Checota recently toured a similar project in Washington, D.C., dubbed The Wharf. That project, valued at $2 billion, also embraces the waterfront, similar to plans for the Missoula venue.

“It also has a lot of commercial, residential and hospitality space,” Checota said of The Wharf. “Ours is nowhere near $2 billion, but it’s a very similar use and there’s a lot of basics for us to learn from that development.”

Nick Checota plans to break ground on the $100 million development next summer. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As planned, the Missoula venue will include a 60,000-square-foot events center, large enough to accommodate a standing crowd of 6,000 or a seated crowd of 3,000. It can also handle a seated banquet audience of 1,000 people.

The venue will serve multiple functions, from dinners to traveling Broadway shows, concerts, performing arts and comedy acts, Checota said.

“We see a lot of benefits from expanding this vision from a conference center to an events center,” Checota said. “Principally, the biggest advantage is a lot more people using it. These kinds of centers bring a lot of people downtown.”

In 2017, the City Council approved a master agreement with Hotel Fox Partners for the Fox site, which the city acquired in 1984. The agreement approved Wednesday stays the same, though it transfers the development rights to Clark Fork Riverfront Properties.

The Farran Group, whose members comprised a portion of Hotel Fox Partners, will focus on developing the remaining five acres surrounding the Fox site for residential and commercial uses. The entire project is largely known as the Riverfront Triangle, comprising seven blighted acres in downtown Missoula.

“This (events center and hotel) is one piece of a much broader development going on here,” Checota said. “These two projects are very much intertwined. The two developers will be working very closely together to make sure everything is master planned.”

He added, “This allows the Farran Group to focus on the other components right away, so there won’t be a long lag time between when this component is done and the residential and commercial component is done.”

The hotel piece of the project will include 180 rooms, similar to what was proposed two years ago and approved by the City Council. It will also include 7,500 square feet of meeting space and two restaurant concepts, including full service and fast-casual.

Three floors of private residential condos will top the hotel, while two levels of underground parking will lie below. The project will fill the corner of Orange and Front streets and stand roughly 10 floors.

The amended agreement also removes the city’s obligation to book and market the events center. As per the 2017 agreement, the city will purchase a portion of the center once it’s constructed using tax increment financing, along with the parking garage.

The events center will then be leased back to Clark Fork Riverfront Properties while the Missoula Parking Commission will manage the garage. The hotel will remain privately owned and operated.

“This meets all the needs we were hoping to fill,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Missoula more and more, in no small part thanks to (Checota), is becoming an experiential economy. I’m happy to be the Austin of the Northwest. This meets everything I could have imagined for this site, and everything I’ve heard the community wanting this site to eventually become.”

A rendering of the project as seen from Orange and Front Street.

A study conducted by the national planning firm Conventions Sports and Leisure in 2015 estimated that a Missoula conference center alone would bring $14 million in direct economic impact to the community each year.

But Checota expects a full events center to top that projection. Given the multiple uses of such a facility, he believes it could draw as many as 60,000 people from other markets to downtown Missoula.

That includes what’s traditionally seen as the slower shoulder seasons, providing a boost to local businesses.

“We have this growing perception as a musical center and cultural hub for the Northwest,” Checota said. “Even from Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City, we’re seeing a lot of ticket buyers come from those markets to see our shows. They’re viewing us as a mecca of live music and cultural events.”

Checota also owns and operates the Wilma, the Top Hat and the Kettlehouse Amphitheater. He plans to obtain a building permit for the Fox site by May 2020, bid the project in June, and start construction by July.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at martin.kidston@missoulacurrent.com