City Council OKs lease for Civic Stadium concerts; neighbors worry about noise, traffic

Despite a barrage of angry emails from the neighborhood, the Missoula City Council unanimously approved contracts Monday night securing the future use of Civic Stadium for baseball and a growing lineup of concerts and comedy acts.

Nick Checota, Logjam Presents

The problem: late-night noise from the concerts, and parking and traffic related to those events, in the Riverside neighborhood and the Old Sawmill District.

The fix: an agreement by Logjam Presents’ owner Nick Checota, Mayor John Engen and the City Council to work with nearby residents on a traffic management plan that considers their concerns – and to end school-night concerts by 10 p.m.

Some residents remained skeptical, but the neighborhood’s leadership council endorsed the $70,000 annual contract approved with Logjam Presents to bring eight concerts a year to the downtown venue.

Councilwoman Gwen Jones attempted to allay some of the fears by leading Checota through a series of questions and answers before the vote.

“There were a lot of emails going around, a lot of questions, a lot of neighborhood interest in this, so I wanted to take this opportunity to get some things broadast (on MCAT),” Jones said.

No. 1, she told Checota, the city’s noise ordinance would be in effect, “of course, and you’ve got to work within that.”

No. 2, “in general, when do you anticipate shows ending?”

Checota replied: “In general, as we talked about at the last meeting, on weekend nights we’d like to go to 10:30, at the absolute latest would be 11. On weeknights, school nights when school’s in session, we’d be willing to always work to end shows at 10.”

At the Kettlehouse Amphitheater in Bonner, Checota said, concerts end by 10:30 or 11 p.m. – “and there is no curfew, no noise ordinance out there, so that is just by election.”

The same holds true at the Wilma Theatre, which Checota owns, “very few shows go past 10:30 or 11 there.”

Jones continued. “How many do you anticipate attending? What is the current capacity?”

Checota said the concerts won’t differ much from what the ballpark has seen in the past. Last summer’s Paul Simon concert drew 8,500. Earlier this year, the Doobie Brothers attracted an audience of 6,000.

Logjam hopes to grow the audiences to a more regular attendance of 7,000 to 10,000. “We would like to see the capacity increased at the venue, if possible, to 10,000,” Checota said.

Traffic management has been a big issue at the stadium since the Missoula Osprey first began playing there, Jones said. How does Logjam intend to handle traffic management for concerts?

“First, we would want to work with the city and the neighborhood to figure out the best traffic plan,” Checota said.

In Bonner, at the Kettlehouse Amphitheater, he said, Logjam can park 1,500 cars on site so that takes care of much of the parking issue.

For traffic management in Bonner, Checota hires six reserve deputy sheriffs and shifts 20 of his 45 events staff to Highway 200 and the parking areas immediately before the encore, also to help with the post-concert traffic and pedestrian safety.

“Each situation is unique, but we’re committed to doing the staffing required” to provide the same level of safety and traffic control at Civic Stadium, Checota said.

Jones said she’d like Logjam to work with a small subcommittee of the neighborhood council to discuss what has and hasn’t worked in the past and what would be the best plan for handling event parking and traffic in the future.

“For sure,” Checota said. “We’re very committed to working with communities. One of the things you get with a local promoter … you get someone who lives in the community, who sees people in this community and is very concerned about our brand in this community. So we work very hard with the community at all of our venues.”

The city’s contract with Logjam makes Checota responsible for $70,000 of Missoula’s $120,000 annual debt service on the stadium.

The accompanying contract with Mountain Baseball, owner of the Missoula Osprey franchise, lowers that group’s annual lease payment to $40,000 (from the full $120,000) – a payment that has been crippling, by all accounts.

In addition, Logjam agreed to establish a maintenance fund equal to $1 per ticket sold during 2019, $1.50 per ticket in 2020 and $2 per ticket thereafter. The stadium has had no maintenance fund previously.

Council members and Engen hailed the contracts as “wins” for everyone concerned, including Missoula residents.

Councilwoman Heather Harp thanked all the Ward 3 constituents who voiced their concerns. “NIMBYism is not a part of the culture in that neighborhood,” she said. “Mr. Checota, I think you’re going to find the neighbors to be really good neighbors.”

“We came up with a win-win-win,” Harp said. The city’s asset at Civic Stadium must be optimized to meet the city’s fiduciary responsibility, she said. Mountain Baseball couldn’t meet that obligation on baseball alone, and didn’t have the expertise that Checota brings in entertainment.

“But most importantly, the neighbors, you win, you have something that’s really unique, it’s a treasure and it will be for a really long time,” Harp said.

What’s lost in this process, Engen said, is the commitment of the Ellis family and Mountain Baseball to bring the Missoula Osprey to town and to get the stadium built, a process that was “hell” at times. With the entrance of Logjam, the Ellises “can get a little relief and enjoy some prosperity as owners of the baseball team, while also working with Nick and his team to bring entertainment to that great site,” the mayor said.

“This lease is the tool that the city of Missoula needs to ensure that the concerns of the neighborhood, which have been articulated to me over the course of at least 13 years, are manifest. We make sure we pay attention to the folks we serve,” Engen said. “Give us a couple of years, and you’ll be pleased not only with the performance of Logjam and the folks Logjam brings to Missoula, but I think you’ll also see success for baseball.”

Gwen Hoppe, who lives in the Riverfront neighborhood, wanted the Logjam contract sent back to committee for more detail.

“There’s good intentions, you hope to do this or that, but I don’t see ‘I will end at 10 ‘clock’ in writing,” she said. “I think going to 11 even though it’s not a school night, that’s too late. Some of us work and get up at 5 in the morning.”

Also problematic, Hoppe said, is the city’s decision to open the gate on Hickory Street that has been closed during Osprey games to limit traffic moving through the neighborhood. That decision was approved by the neighborhood council, she said, “but the rest of us didn’t know about it.

“That needs to be looked at.”

And the 10-year lease “seems too long,” she added. “Businesses change owners. This great guy who’s great at working with the neighborhood won’t necessarily continue owning this business. I’d just like to see more things identified in the contract.”

Ed Wetherbee, co-owner of the Old Sawmill District and its mix of residential and commercial developments, brought similar concerns to this testimony, although he apologized for sending council members and Checota “heated” emails in recent days.

The Old Sawmill District immediately adjoins the stadium property to the south.

“I’m here to respond to a number of the emails and conversations that have happened over the last days,” he said. “I will have to admit that I’m not necessarily proud of them.”

They were borne out of fear and a lack of information, Wetherbee said, and experience with how things sometimes “work not so well.”

“When things are done well, and they’re done in the right dosage, they’re good for everyone,” he said. “When it’s not done well and it’s done to extreme, somebody loses.”

The intention is to limit the number of events to eight per year, Wetherbee said, but it needs to be memoralized.

“The lease says eight events per year,” the mayor said.

In the end, Wetherbee said, he supports the contract. “I owe an apology to some people for some more extreme language I should not have used in some emails.”

Logjam’s contract begins with the 2019 concert season, and its first $70,000 lease payment is due next May.