Missoula’s opportunity zone lands first investment, with makings of a tech campus

Engineering Support Services LLC purchased roughly 6.5 acres at Maple and Broadway in 2017, including the 1.5 acres slated for DJ&A’s new office building. The Broadway Opportunity Fund will own the structure.

The first development to capitalize off Missoula’s new opportunity zone is set to begin construction in the coming weeks, marking the first of several projects slated for the West Broadway corridor.

It could also mark an early foray into plans to develop a tech campus, something envisioned two years ago by Blackfoot Communications and surrounding property owners.

On Thursday, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board of commissioners approved $301,000 in tax increment financing to make public improvements to the right of way as part of Broadway Opportunity Fund’s plans to construct an office building at 2000 Maple St.

DJ&A will serve as the building’s primary tenant, though a restaurant may also land in the facility. A second project is expected to take shape on the corner of Maple and West Broadway this year as well.

“There appears to be a very good chance there will be a second development out here in the very near future, quite possibly even concurrent with this one,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. “We’re finally starting to see some development out on West Broadway, which we’ve been waiting for for a long time.”

That interest was sparked in part by the creation of Missoula’s only opportunity zone, an area that loosely follows the West Broadway corridor and includes North Reserve and Scott streets.

The zones were included in the Federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 to encourage long-term private investment in low-income communities. The program itself provides tax incentives to those who invest in opportunity funds.

Buchanan said Engineering Support Services LLC purchased roughly 6.5 acres at Maple and Broadway in 2017, including the 1.5 acres slated for DJ&A’s new office building. The Broadway Opportunity Fund will own the structure.

“They will be one of the first projects to take advantage of the opportunity zone investments,” Buchanan said. “The fact you have tax increment financing assistance available out here, and you’ve got that opportunity zone, I think we’re going to see some major changes along there.”

DJ&A will serve as the primary tenant for an office building planned off Maple Street in Missoula’s new opportunity zone. A restaurant may also follow.

The parcel owned by Engineering Support Services adjoins property owned by Blackfoot Communications.

The firm confirmed to the Missoula Current in 2017 its plans to create a technology campus in that area, creating a startup incubator not unlike that at the Montana Technology Enterprise Center on the opposite end of the city.

MRA and other entities have engaged A&E Architects to create a master plan for the 6.5-acre parcel, along with adjoining properties owned by Blackfoot and the Montana Department of Transportation.

“We’ve talked about a master plan for a tech park that might go in that area,” Buchanan said. “Those discussions are ongoing at this point. There’s some uncertainty about how that will move forward, but DJ&A in the meantime needs office space.”

While those efforts take shape, MRA and the city have turned their attention to bringing adequate public services to the West Broadway corridor. As it stands, Buchanan said, the area is currently served by an antiquated sewer system that still relies on a step system.

The system will be converted to a gravity line while utilities are modernized and Maple Street is improved.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions with the developers, with Public Works, with MRA, about how to share that cost,” Buchanan said. “Without the gravity line, Broadway Opportunity Fund was going to have to run a forced service line to tie into the existing sewer, and that was about $100,000.”

Instead of going that route, Broadway Opportunity Fund will contribute that $100,000 to sewer improvements while the city’s Public Works will cover additional costs using its sewer development fund.

MRA in turn will make improvements to Maple Street, including sidewalks, street trees and lighting from the DJ&A office to the Broadway intersection.

“The sewer is being totally funded with no assistance from the urban renewal district, and we get what we need out there, which will be a catalyst for additional development to happen,” Buchanan said. “It will extend the sewer into what could become a tech park at some point. The easements will be in place for that.”