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Assessment finds support for Missoula County Fairgrounds redevelopment, funding

According to the results of an assessment commissioned by the Missoula County Fairgrounds, community members believe the property is heading in the right direction, and they support plans that preserve its heritage, provide recreational opportunities and bring the community together. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula County Fairgrounds and its user groups on Tuesday released the results of a survey focused on future redevelopment and funding for the Midtown property.

Conducted by M+R Strategic Services between the summer of 2019 and earlier this year, the assessment found broad support for a range of community projects, including a new Glacier Ice Rink, a rodeo arena, a livestock center, green space and youth education.

The projects represent Phase II of the fairgrounds redevelopment plan.

“The goals of this project were to discover the favorability of the fairgrounds as a whole and to learn the community values and preferences for specific aspects of the redevelopment plan,” said fairgrounds director Emily Brock. “We learned some important things – some surprising and some not surprising.”

According to the results, community members believe the fairgrounds is heading in the right direction, and they support plans that preserve the property’s heritage, provide recreational opportunities and bring the community together.

Participants also preferred an inclusive approach to redevelopment and acknowledged a general sensitivity to tax increases. Overall, the results found wide support for a scaled-back approach that blends public and private funding.

“We were hired to ascertain what the public preferences were, not just to the fairgrounds plan overall, but also the specific components of the plan and different ways to fund it,” said Derek Goldman with M+R. “The county fairgrounds are viewed favorably in the community and countywide, and participants recognize that fairgrounds redevelopment is long overdue, and the county should continue to move forward with redevelopment.”

Missoula County commissioners and user groups break ground on the Phase I redevelopment of the Missoula County Fairgrounds in 2018. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

The fairgrounds embarked on Phase I redevelopment two years ago, which has included renovations to historic buildings, commuter trails, infrastructure, concessions and the Rocky Mountain Exploration Center, including the privately funded Butterfly House and Insectarium.

The county leveraged three mills in 2018 to help fund the work, which was estimated at around $14 million. Phase II would continue those redevelopment efforts and could be funded through a public-private partnership, the cost of which remains in flux.

Missoula County commissioners have not taken any action on the recommendations.

“Right now I’m very focused on the private effort on the rodeo center and livestock arena,” Brock said. “It’s really up to the stakeholder groups who have partnered with us on this project, and what they come up with and propose for a plan for moving forward.”

When measured against other community assets, roughly 65% of respondents to the survey viewed the property in a positive light while 7% had a negative take. That’s compared to Fort Missoula Regional Park, which scored 66% and 6%, and the Missoula Center for the Performing Arts, which scored 58% and 3%

Asked if Missoula County commissioners should authorize issuing $15 million bonds to carry out Phase II, 65% said yes and 32% said no. When partnered with private funding to cover the full cost of building new ice rinks, 39% said they were much more likely to approve it while 8% said thy were much less likely.

“Because of property tax increases and other investments, people are really price sensitive,” said C.B. Pearson with M+R. “It’s not a ‘no’ for an investment, it’s just that you have to have the right investment available for them, and they understand what that investment means for the community in terms of benefits.”

The assessment included 39 interviews with community leaders and stakeholders, and two separate phone surveys of 502 likely voters last summer and 454 likely voters in January.