City, county expect decision on downtown Missoula federal building “any day”

The federal building in downtown Missoula as it looked in 1913.

City and county officials remain optimistic that the federal government will release its historic building in downtown Missoula, increasing the likelihood that local government could establish it as a hub for local services.

A decision by the General Services Administration is expected any day, setting up a time-sensitive chain of events that could lead to its consolidated use by Missoula County and the city of Missoula.

If the GSA agrees to release the building, Mayor John Engen said, it would commence a 30-day comment period from other federal agencies looking to make use of the structure. But given the building has sat empty for years, he believes it’s unlikely that another agency would move in.

The federal government has already declined to use it as a new Veterans Affairs medical clinic, citing the costs of renovations.

“Baring any takers there, there’s a 60 day window for non-governmental organizations to do programming for housing,” Engen said. “But retrofitting that thing for housing would cost a gazillion dollars. Our hunch is that’s not an option.”

City and county officials last March sent a letter to the Denver region of the GSA expressing interest in using the vacant building under what’s known as the Good Neighbor program.

Engen said the two local governments have employed a model used elsewhere in the country under similar circumstances. If the agreement proves successful, local government would receive the facility for free.

“We’re pursing a program offered through the National Park Service, wherein the park service declares it a national monument and conveys it to a local government in exchange for stewardship of the historic character of the facility over time,” Engen said.

Last year, Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick suggested that all offices currently in the Missoula County Administration Building could be consolidated, including the commissioners, Community & Planning Services, Missoula County Public Works, Risk and Benefits, and others.

The county currently leases property around the city to house some departments, given the lack of space at the current downtown office. City government is in a similar situation.

The March letter said the 90,000-square-foot facility has enough space to accommodate nearly all branches of local government, providing something of a one-stop shop for public services. Both branches of government are committed to remaining downtown.

“We established an inter-government team during this to work on an inter-local agreement and a due diligence request for proposals,” said Dale Bickel, the city’s chief administrative officer.

The building opened in 1913 and served as the headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service for more than 100 years. It underwent an expansion in the 1930s and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

But the Forest Service relocated from its downtown regional headquarters to Fort Missoula in 2015, and since then the building has remained mostly empty.

“It would defy logic for them to sit on it,” said Engen.

Helena and Lewis and Clark County have a similar arrangement with their former federal building, a historic structure that stands over Last Chance Gulch in the city’s downtown district.

And while Missoula County and the city would like to repurpose the former Forest Service building for new public uses, they both said the process would take time to research and complete.

“We have our own due diligence we’ll be undertaking,” said Commissioner Strohmaier.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at martin@missoulacurrent.com