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Missoula County declines proposed bond for fairgrounds improvements, for now

Under a unified effort, various user groups ranging from 4-H to ice sports at Glacier Ice Rink were expected to ask the county to place a general obligation bond on the November ballot to fund the next round of facility improvements at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Commissioners on Thursday said the request will have to wait. (Missoula Current file photo)

An expected request by various user groups at the Missoula County Fairgrounds asking commissioners to place a general obligation bond on the November ballot will have to wait another year.

Missoula County commissioners on Thursday said the anticipated ask was ill-timed with the economic challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and wouldn’t be approved if the groups presented it now.

“The commission decided they felt most comfortable with putting that off due to the current situation going on with COVID and the change in unemployment numbers in Missoula County and the sensitivity around additional potential tax burdens given everything that’s occurring,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury.

Under a unified effort, various user groups ranging from 4-H to ice sports at Glacier Ice Rink were expected to ask the county to place the general obligation bond on the November ballot to fund the next round of facility improvements.

A survey conducted last year found tepid support for a larger $35 million bond to fund a suite of improvements, including a new and expanded ice rink, a livestock and equestrian center, a rodeo arena and additional green space.

But when scaled back to a $15 million bond, support began to climb with 64% of respondents saying they would vote yes. That amount would fund a new livestock and horse center for youth education, new ice rinks and additional green space.

Commissioner Josh Slotnick said that while the survey showed public support for such improvements, it was conducted before the pandemic and the economic landscape has since shifted.

“I’m going to guess that we would have voted to put this on the ballot because the polling was in favor of it,” said Slotnick. “But we’re in a completely different reality and it’s super sad not to be able to see this dream come true right now, but a whole lot of dreams are on hold right now.”

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 that represent Phase II of the fairgrounds redevelopment plan.

The fairgrounds embarked on Phase I redevelopment two years ago, which has included renovations to historic buildings, commuter trails, infrastructure and concessions.

The county leveraged three mills in 2018 to help fund that work, which was estimated at around $14 million. Phase II would continue those redevelopment efforts and would likely include a public-private blend, including a proposed general obligation bond.

“We’re continuing to move the fairgrounds leaps and bounds over where it was a few yeas ago,” said Slotnick. “When we get back to prosperity, this will be first in line. We’re sorry this has to be the way it is right now.”