Trails project begins at Missoula fairgrounds with eye on Midtown connectivity

Crews remove old fencing on the south side of the Missoula County Fairgrounds on Monday, June 17, 2019, as work begins on the construction of a new trail system in and around the Midtown property. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

On the back side of the Missoula County Fairgrounds, the chain link fence lining the property sits like a listing ship. On the front side, it’s overgrown with trees and shrubs.

However it’s viewed, the rusty old fence keeps what is inside the fairgrounds from getting out and what’s outside from getting in. But that’s about to change.

Construction at the fairgrounds entered full stride on Monday as crews tackled a number of projects. Renovations to the historic Commercial Building, circa 1915, is in full bloom, while a concessions stand with room for eight vendors is underway.

But it’s the trail work now taking place that may have the biggest impact on how the fairgrounds links with its surrounding neighborhoods. Come fall, it will no longer serve as a barrier, nearly impenetrable to non-motorized commuters.

“The trails are symbolic of what the fairgrounds represents in all of Missoula and for all of our community, in terms of connecting people,” said fairgrounds director Emily Brock. “Physically, it connects people around Malfunction Junction – the most difficult intersection to get through as a pedestrian or biker. The new trails will help people navigate that.”

While connectivity in the auto-dominated Midtown district has emerged in a number of city plans over the decades, it wasn’t until this month that funding for the trails project was made available. That came from $1.15 million in tax increment and a revenue bond approved by the City Council.

“I think it’s great to have a trail system that links a major event center like the fairgrounds with the rest of the community,” said Jordan Hess, chair of the City Council’s Public Works Committee. “It’s always been a goal and something that’s been a priority. To make it happen is great for the fair and other events around there.”

While the fairgrounds once sat surrounded by farmland outside the city, it now sits wholly surrounded by a buzz of commercial activity. That includes Sentinel High School, Southgate Mall, Splash Montana and the YMCA, along with a number of residential districts.

It’s also lined by the some of the busiest cross-town streets in Missoula, including Brooks and South Avenue. Both connect at Malfunction Junction, and most cyclists work to avoid the intersection, opting instead for more circuitous routes

The trail system will change that.

Crews continue making renovations to the historic Commercial Building at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“The Southgate Triangle neighborhood has the lowest load share for people biking and walking and people taking transit in the entire community,” said Hess. “There’s some real impenetrable barriers. Getting a trail system that connects up to Russell Street and eventually permeates it makes it so folks in that neighborhood have equitable access to all of our modes of transportation.”

Some of the trail work could be finished this fall while additional work will continue into next year. And while the fairgrounds marches down the path of its multi-million dollar renovation, the city may also take a deeper look at extending the new connectivity deeper into the surrounding neighborhoods.

Hess sees particular opportunities to improve Russell and the South Avenue corridor.

“I’m interested in looking at lighting and safety along Russell to make sure it’s easier to cross,” said Hess. “The whole South Avenue corridor to me is an opportunity with Fort Missoula Regional Park and the fairgrounds. We’ve got this goal to create connectivity and permeability so the arterials are crossable and it’s easy to get through that neighborhood.”

The fairgrounds’ long-range plan calls for a number of amenities, including a new ice arena, rodeo grounds, livestock building and learning center complete with an insectarium. And as the property finds its new chapter, Brock said, it’s likely to find its own character.

“We’re not trying to emulate what’s happening downtown or pull anything away from downtown,” said Brock. “This is a vibrant, regional commercial hub with the mall and the businesses that are here. We’ll always need to have auto traffic for the types of regional services we have in Midtown, but we can make it friendly and accessible to all people.