City to proceed with $2M purchase of MRL property for parks and trail

A donation by Montana Rail Link and a $2 million purchase by the city could complete the last segment of the Bitterroot Branch Trail in Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston

A plot of industrial land along a seldom-used rail spur in the center of Missoula has moved one step closer to becoming a new city park and trail connector – two improvements that city officials have been eyeing for several years.

As it turns out, Montana Rail Link had similar thoughts.

On Wednesday, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors approved a recommendation that will allow the City Council to authorize the mayor to sign a purchase agreement for the 12-acre property, owned by MRL along the Bitterroot Branch Rail Line.

“There’s not only a need for the trail connection to be made there, but those neighborhoods are absolutely devoid of parkland or green space,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “The mayor and MRL were able to arrive at an agreement that will allow us to move forward with consideration of the purchase of that property.”

Under that agreement, MRL will sell the lot to the city for $2 million – a price the city says is well below the property’s full market value. The remainder of the value would be donated by MRL to help the city meets its need for parks and trails in the area.

Buchanan said the city also has been approved for a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an environmental assessment on the property. MRL has granted access to the site for the work.

“While in negotiations with the mayor and his staff, we looked at the last piece of trail and the fact there wasn’t a park in that entire area, and when you look at the long-term benefits to the citizens of Missoula, it really overwhelmed every other thing,” said Mike Halligan, executive director of the Washington Foundation. “It’s a win-win for everyone and will provide access to the park and trail for a long time after we’re all gone.”

Once Mayor John Engen signs a purchase agreement, the city will have up to 120 days to conduct its due diligence, including the environmental assessment. If the project advances to purchase, the City Council must approve the issuance of $2.3 million in revenue bonds from Urban Renewal District III.

MRA would also apply $389,000 remaining in the 1995 Open Space Bond Fund to help with the property’s purchase. Buchanan said the purchase would include revenue to complete the trail connection, though construction of the park would likely come later.

“We’d use TIF funds to pay for the balance of that purchase price, and also to set aside funds to immediately build the trail connection,” Buchanan said, placing the trail project at around $500,000. “We have an opportunity with all of these 12 acres to do something pretty special.”

Mayor Engen, who has worked with MRL to negotiate the project over the past few years, said the purchase would enable the city to complete a number of goals at a bargain price.

“They’re not making any more land, and that’s particularly true with parkland in this area,” Engen said. “We’ve been having conversations about providing more opportunity for this particular neighborhood. This is a fabulous opportunity, not only because we’ll have a lovely park there, but we close that trail gap.”

The Bitterroot Branch Trail, which extends from downtown Missoula south to Hamilton, runs a distance of 50 miles. It’s complete in nearly all aspects, less the four-block stretch owned by MRL.

The acquisition would connect that remaining stretch and convert rough 5 of the property’s 12 acres into a park. The remainder of the property is occupied by several buildings, most of which are under lease.

Engen said the lease payments could provide cash flow to the overall project. He said the money would not be directed into the city’s General Fund. Once the leases expire, he added, the city could consider a mixed-use housing project on the remainder of the property.

“There’s a real possibility around a public-private partnership there for some mixed-use housing,” Engen said. “Housing by parks and trails for folks at all incomes would be a very interesting project for us.”

MRA said further studies are needed to find ways to bring the trail across South Avenue. Other design features will also be addressed.

While MRL plans to maintain the rail line to serve future customers in the Bitterroot Valley, the company is eager to see the park and trail project fully developed.

“Over the years, we have partnered with the city of Missoula on many projects, including granting easements to extend and improve the trail system throughout the valley,” said MRL president Tom Walsh. “We have 450 employees in the Missoula area. They and their families, along with the community, will enjoy and cherish this trail for generations to come.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com