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Uses, retrofits begin to take shape in plans for downtown Missoula federal building

The downtown Missoula federal building would house all county agencies that interface with the public, such as community planning, and clerk and recorder. The city could also move City Hall to the federal building, creating a single location for all public services. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula County on Monday began exploring the consolidation of its various departments and how they’ll be positioned in the downtown federal building, and what that would mean for any properties that are later deemed surplus.

In the end, the federal building would house all county agencies that interface with the public, such as community planning, and clerk and recorder. The city could also move City Hall to the federal building, creating a single location for all public services.

“If something has to be off site, out of the idea the federal building, it should be functions the public isn’t necessarily seeking out,” said Commissioner Dave Stohmaier. “I’d want to be shooting for one-stop shopping.”

A&E has completed its initial assessment of the building and is working to develop a programming plan. While a timeline hasn’t been set for any needed improvements to begin, the county hopes to strike a balance between efficiency and maintaining the building’s historic charm.

The cost of any improvements and required retrofits will also play into the final decision. The city and county have until March to submit an application to the National Park Service to acquire the facility until the Good Neighbor Program.

“Some of these decisions will help us know the final answer to that, and how much space we need to keep in that building to be able to grow in the future,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief administrative officer. “Depending on what departments go in there, some will grow more than others during that time.”

Current proposals are tentative but would likely see county administration occupy the federal building, along with Community and Planning Services, and Clerk and Recorder.

The city will also consider moving most of City Hall into the new facility, as well as the police. The location of city courts remains undecided, though the county courthouse will likely become a central hub for courts and law enforcement.

“The County Attorney’s Office currently doesn’t have adequate space for their staff,” said Lounsbury. “In the short term, I don’t believe there’s any intention to expand District Court beyond the existing five judges, but there will eventually be a planning horizon where there will be a sixth District Court judge.”

Lewis and Clark County and the city of Helena currently share the old federal building above Last Chance Gulch. The facility is spacious and adorned with period architecture and will likely serve as a model for Missoula to follow as it begins renovations of its federal building.

That includes the potential sharing of a public hearing room. Currently, the city and county have separate facilities for public meetings. The required technology could make combing the two challenging, though it’s not insurmountable.

“There are things like that that will take some doing,” said Anne Hughes, the county’s chief operating officer. “Managing a public meeting room seems like it would be uneventful, but doing it can actually be a complicated undertaking. Doing that across jurisdictions is going to take some effort.”

Parking could also be a challenge, though the county believes it can be resolved in cooperation with the city and the Missoula Parking Commission. The county will explore potential options, including the purchase of nearby properties such as the U.S. Bank building on Spruce Street.

Until then, ADA parking will be required near the federal building.

“We’ll have to reserve some parking, both for ADA members of the public and ADA staff,” said Hughes. “We’ll need some form of parking at this building that will meet those demands.”