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MRA funds purchase of old church building on city-owned Midtown property

The newest stretch of the Bitterroot Trail passes a parcel of city-owned property in the Midtown district. The city has now acquired all but one building on the property, which will eventually be redeveloped. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Looking toward the future and the city’s housing needs, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency this week agreed to spend $46,000 to acquire one of the few privately owned buildings remaining on a parcel of city-owned property in the Midtown district.

The city in 2017 purchased the property from Montana Rail Link and has since redeveloped half the parcel into a popular park. The other half includes several buildings, two of which remained privately owned, until recently.

The city has long-term plans to redevelop that portion of the property in a mixed-use development that includes housing. But in the meantime, it wants to keep the buildings it owns in use until a master plan is completed.

“We had two tenants on the property that owned their own buildings but were leasing the land,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “The buildings on North Avenue we owned outright, along with the land.”

Camp Make-a-Dream and the Sovereign Hope Church both owned their building on the site, but leased the land from the city. The church has moved out, using the old library for Sunday service while waiting to move into the old Coke plant on Third Street this spring.

An appraisal conducted on the old church building placed its value at around $45,000. The city struck a deal with the church, enabling the city to acquire the building while giving the church much-needed operating revenue.

“The city was looking for space we could use for emergency winter shelter,” said Buchanan. “That’s one of the locations we are now housing less fortunate homeless people for emergency winter shelter this winter, which necessitated the church moving out.”

The city redeveloped half of the old Montana Rail Link property into a park. (Courtesy photo)

The city paid for the purchase of the church building from a maintenance fund established by rents generated from the Montana Rail Link property. But as the city has acquired other properties, including the Sleepy Inn and the old library block, the need for maintenance funding has increased.

The $46,000 approved this week by MRA will reimburse the city’s maintenance fund.

“As we have acquired other properties, the need for that maintenance money has increased, with improvements we need to make in the old library building in order to lease that space out and keep it occupied until we’re ready to redevelop that block,” Buchanan said. “It will allow the city and MRA to have the flexibility to have that maintenance fund available when situations arise that we can’t anticipate.”

All three properties – the Sleepy Inn, the old library and the MRL property – are slated for eventual redevelopment, including a component of housing. That will require a master planning process, which hasn’t yet begun.

While the church has moved out and the city now owns the building, only Camp Make-a-Dream remains on site, and it still owns its building. Buchanan said the city has been talking to the organization about the future.

“It’s their intention to keep operating from that building until we’re ready to redevelop those remaining 8 acres,” Buchanan said. “We’ve had conversations with them that haven’t gone very far because we don’t know what’s going to happen there.”

Buchanan said the organization likes the location and could be included in master planning efforts as redevelopment of the property nears.

“We could actually design in space that works more efficiently for them if they became part of a mix-use development under redevelopment that occurs on the property,” she said. “But all that remains to be seen.”

Dale Bickell, the city’s Chief Administrative Office, said the city will likely begin planning the site’s future once the pandemic passes and the old church property is no longer needed as an emergency shelter.

Buchanan agreed, saying the city’s need for housing remains dire.

“I would suspect that as soon as we get through the environmental aspects that are holding this up right now, we’ll be ready to go great guns on doing the planning necessary and start redevelopment on that, just due to the pressure to get housing on the ground,” she said.

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