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After death of film cap, developers seek new opportunities in Missoula tech park

The “Yellowstone” series films and episode in downtown Missoula. The developers behind a proposed film and television studio in Missoula are now looking at other business opportunities after the Legislature failed to increase the state film cap to expected levels. (KPAX image)

Citing state legislation that sank a multi-million dollar development and business plan rooted in the film industry, Missoula County on Thursday amended its sales agreement with Shadowcast Partners, hoping the company could move its proposed land purchase in another direction.

The deal extends the agreement’s financing contingency for one more month and stretches the closing date to early next year.

“It gives them more time to get everything in line,” said Dori Bownlow, director of economic development for the county.

Shadowcast Partners placed a $1.5 million offer on property in the county’s economic development district near the airport, where it planned to build and operate a $20 million media hub. The business plan would have brought large and small film and television producers to the facility, boosting local spending and providing jobs.

But the deal hinged on the outcome of legislation that sought to increase the state’s film cap to around $250 million. The bill looked promising until the end, when the legislature – prompted by Gov. Greg Gianforte – set a cap of just $12 million.

The cap is primarily consumed by one or two productions, leaving little else in the hopper for other studios.

“Our governor, who is all about keeping us competitive, apparently doesn’t see the film industry as one where we should be competitive, and given the chance, closed the door on it,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “To say it’s a bummer doesn’t quite get there.”

Shadowcast Partners remains interested in several parcels in the Missoula development park near the airport.

With the failure of the film cap, Shadowcast Partners pulled the plug on the Montana Media Hub, saying it was no longer viable. But the company is still interested in the county property and indicated on Thursday that it planned to move ahead with another business proposal.

“After focusing really entirely on one thing and finding out it wouldn’t work, we’ve done all we can to rapidly pivot and explore alternative opportunities that we think will fit that restrictive (county) zoning,” said Shadowcast member Adam Graham. “We think we have options and ideas and the interest from groups we believe can fit that.”

Given the property sits in a Targeted Economic Development District, it comes with certain zoning requirements that lie beyond the county’s control. That zoning limits what Shadowcast Partners can place on the property.

But Josh Schrader, a member of the development team, said Shadowcast has reached out to the Montana High Tech Business Alliance, Early Stage Montana, the Missoula Economic Partnership and area brokers to explore other uses of the property beyond film production.

“We have some indications of interest,” he said. “Some don’t meet the zoning requirements and some we think may. We’re exploring those.”

Schrader didn’t disclose areas of interest or future proposals but said Shadowcast plans to meet with Missoula County planning this week to explore the property’s zoning limitations.

Commissioners said they’re eager for Shadowcast to find success on the site.

“If this wasn’t in the tech district, the zoning would be much different,” Slotnick said. “If this was zoning in other parts of the county, maybe we could do a variance. But we don’t have any flexibility. We’re in a tight legal box here but we’ll push the very edge of it to make sure you have a project and hire people and see some economic development.”

The local economic impacts of the Montana Media Hub would have included new jobs, the purchase of local goods, a demand for air service and greater hotel occupancy, among other benefits.

It also would have prompted more film-induced tourism and boosted Missoula’s arts and culture. And while Shadowcast is moving in another direction due to the state’s paltry film cap, Missoula County remains displeased with the Legislature’s anti-business bill.

“Missoula County is disappointed, among a string of disappointments, with our Legislature over this move,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “In the mean time, we’d love to see a success story come out of this.”