County infrastructure project would bring jobs, housing and better grid connections

The area west of Reserve Street between Mullan Road and West Broadway is expected to continue growing, and the county is looking to build the infrastructure needed to accommodate and guide the growth. (Missoula Current)

Members of a broad transportation committee on Thursday took note of Missoula County’s plan to apply for a sizable federal grant that would complete gaps in the road network west of the city and guide development over the next two decades.

Contracted by Missoula County this week, WGM Group is updating the 2012 “Missoula County Airport Landside Infrastructure Project” to help the county apply for a $12.7 million Tiger Grant.

If approved, the funding would help complete a broken transportation grid between Mullan Road and West Broadway, spanning west of Reserve Street to include 600 acres of bare land south of Missoula International Airport.

“It would provide a backbone of transportation for both development at the airport and development in the Wye and Mullan Road areas,” Jeremy Keene with WGM Group told members of the MPO on Thursday. “As development is occurring in the Mullan area, there’s really only one way in and out of there. This grid road network would help relieve a lot of pressure on Mullan Road by connecting over to Broadway.”

The network plans were adopted by Missoula County as far back as 2002 but have never been fully implemented. Among other things, the project would connect both George Elmer Drive and Mary Jane Boulevard with Mullan Road and Broadway.

It would also extend England Boulevard west to 600 acres of land owned by the airport, which is planning to develop the property for light industrial and manufacturing. Doing so could attract thousands of new jobs, according to the county and the Missoula Economic Partnership.

“The primary impediment to the airport plan is transportation infrastructure,” Keene said. “There’s a demand for this kind of land. There’s not a lot of large-scale land available for industrial users looking for space in Missoula.”

While the airport and local economic leaders are ready to market the property to new and expanding businesses looking for transportation access and proximity to affordable housing, it hasn’t found success given the area’s lack of infrastructure.

The lack of industrial land has impeded the city’s economic potential.

“The land isn’t available or for sale in Missoula right now, and we’ve seen businesses go elsewhere,” Keene said. “We’ve seen that happen over the last 20 years in the airport industrial park. That area is built out and we’re looking at what happens for the next 20 years.”

James Grunke, president and CEO of the Missoula Economic Partnership, said access to property suited for light industrial and manufacturing would make the city more competitive in attracting new businesses.

Manufacturing firms rank among the top three requests fielded by the partnership. But Grunke said the city struggles to meet their needs given its lack of industrial lots. Developing the airport property could grow the city’s economic opportunities.

“It’s one of the biggest barriers we face, having access to good industrial land,” Grunke said. “It’s really scarce in Missoula and opening up that airport land for development could meet further needs for years to come.”’

Supporters of the plan argue other benefits as well, including the chance to develop workforce housing close to jobs in a planned neighborhood.

The area off Mullan Road is growing quickly and isn’t expected to slow down as the city looks to increase its housing stock. Hellgate Elementary is going though a $30 million expansion and the airport is set to embark on construction of a new passenger terminal.

Accommodating the growth must happen sooner rather than later, Keene said.

“There’s a bigger benefit we might miss out on if we don’t plan these projects together, including the benefits of developing a neighborhood that’s close to high-wage jobs,” Keene said. “This idea that we can provide workforce housing in this neighborhood, good jobs around the airport and have good connectivity to those areas is good community planning and something we need to be looking for.”

To be competitive, the county must provide a $9 million match, of which roughly $7 million is on hand in tax increment financing and the acquisition of right-of-way. The county is expected to ask the city to contribute $2 million.

A meeting between the city and county was scheduled for Thursday.

“We think this is an important step for Missoula,” Grunke said.