County to consider special improvement district for fairgrounds’ redevelopment

Plans to break ground on the first of several improvements at the Missoula County Fairgrounds are set to move forward this year, including the renovation of several historic structures and site work for a future livestock center and rodeo arena.

Emily Bentley, director of the fairgrounds, said she will present a resolution to Missoula County commissioners next month in hopes of creating a special improvement district for the property, which would add flexibility to how the projects are financed.

It would not create a new tax.

“What we’re looking at are ways to deal with the financing in the most flexible and transparent way,” Bentley said Monday. “The special district allows us to really show taxpayers what their money is being spent on at the fairgrounds.”

The county has already established 3 mills to the fairgrounds, which generate roughly $650,000 per year. But Bentley said the fairgrounds doesn’t want to spread that funding out over 20 years and is looking at ways to finance the property’s redevelopment sooner rather than later.

“The special district allows us to access financing of the mills that were allocated to the fairgrounds in a way that’s transparent,” Bentley said. “We have the funding, the question is more about which path we take on the financing.”

Funding allocated to the property thus far will go toward renovation of several historic buildings, and a new learning center for the county’s weed district and 4H. It will also fund construction of a small maintenance shop and concessions, as well as site work for a future livestock center and rodeo arena.

The projects were among many approved by the county in 2016 as part of a larger push to redevelop the fairgrounds. Those behind the effort have said Phase 1 is likely to cost between $14 million and $20 million, most of it funded by the county.

That funding would likely be leveraged to raise additional public and private funding for three new ice rinks, the livestock center and rodeo grounds. Bentley said the county is also looking to partner with the city on other improvements.

“We want to go from five acres of open space to 19 acres of open space and add 6,000 feet of trail connections,” Bentley said. “Those are currently not funded in the mills and we’re hoping the city will partner with us on that as a way to incentivize redevelopment.”

Future phases of redevelopment would include an exhibition center and the full build-out of the livestock center. However, the approach could change if the county creates a special improvement district on the fairgrounds.

“We’re starting to work on the resolution part now,” Bentley said. “We’ll have something in front of the commissioners by February.”