Agreement for downtown development project clears committee

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

An agreement between the city and a team of developers looking to build a downtown hotel and conference center moved forward on Wednesday, though questions linger over the demands of a community group and its insistence that a labor agreement be reached before the project is built.

The Administration and Finance Committee last week delayed action on the agreement after Mayor John Engen asked for more time to work out terms suitable to both Hotel Fox Partners and the Community Benefits Coalition.

In an effort to strike balance, the mayor inserted language into the agreement requiring Hotel Fox Partners to comply with federal and state labor laws, and not to engage in unfair labor practices, as defined by the National Labor Relations Act.

But while Hotel Fox Partners ultimately accepted the addition, the Community Benefits Coalition did not. Rather, it wants the city to mandate that a labor agreement be included in the project’s larger development agreement.

“We’ve been clear from day one that we want a labor piece agreement,” said coalition member Mark Anderlik, who’s also president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council. “We’re going to try to organize the workers one way or another. We’re going to do the things we need to do. That could include a boycott or a picket right out front.”

The coalition’s threats to scuttle the project before it even got off the ground didn’t sit well with several council members, and the developers maintained their position that they would not sign a labor agreement.

Jim McLeod, a partner with Hotel Fox, said it’s up to the employees – not the city or the developers – whether they want to unionize. Such decisions should be made once the hotel is built and an operator is in place, he said.

“We are not going to sign a labor agreement or neutrality agreement prior to this hotel getting built,” said McLeod. “It’s up to the employees whether they want to unionize. It’s not up to us. We still stand on that. Let us get the hotel built and get the employees hired and let them make the decision if they want to unionize or not.”

Due to the objections of the Community Benefits Coalition, the committee removed language added by the mayor, though it did so with reluctance.

“We all expect the employers to not interfere with the right of labor to organize, which I support, and which is law,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “So to me, this is a restatement of the same concept (as a labor piece agreement).”

The coalition’s opposition to language added to the agreement by the mayor caused confusion among members of the council. Most suggested that the language had been added to protect future employees.

The CBC’s insistence that it be removed led some to question the group’s motives.

“Potentially, what’s hanging in the balance is whether the project goes forward, if there’s an impasse like that,” said City Attorney Jim Nugent. “They (CBC) haven’t identified why the labor piece must be in there. There’s no law requiring it. The mayor made a good-faith effort to find some sort of agreement, and it didn’t work. They (CBC) intend something other than what the mayor proposed.”

Members of the coalition urged the committee to postpone a vote. One said the project wasn’t needed and suggested the city walk away from the effort altogether.

Yet members of the committee and city staff disagreed, saying the project represents four years of work and will serve as a boon to the city, drawing 120,000 visitors to Missoula each year. Once built out, estimates suggest, the entire development would bring an estimated $32 million in new economic activity each year.

Estimates offered by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana also suggest that the project would support 800 construction jobs and more than 500 permanent jobs.

Supporters of the project urged the council to move forward, saying fluctuating interest rates and construction prices could jeopardize the project if the council continues to delay action.

“As an external but vested partner, I feel like the developers have addressed all the concerns of the CBC, with this one exception,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “I feel the CBC is not really financially vested in this project.”

She added, “The time to negotiate a labor union is not now. The time to negotiate a labor union is when the employees are in place.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com