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From housing to river bridge, MRA sets goals for last 9 years of central Missoula district

The new office building for ATG-Cognizant remains under construction in the Old Sawmill District in downtown Missoula. The city has a long list of goals for Urban Renewal District II and is set on achieving them in the next nine years. (Missoula Current file)

With only nine years remaining in the life of Urban Renewal District II, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and its board of commissioners are working to present a list of public priorities to the City Council and test its appetite to bond the work.

The district, which encompasses the West Broadway Corridor, the Old Sawmill District and the central neighborhood, isn’t flush with tax increment revenue and the work, ranging from water mains and sidewalks to housing, will require some level of bonding.

“Most of the projects prioritized have been talked about for years,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “What we’re trying to do is look at what happens over the next nine years of the district and what projects need to be at the top of the list. A number of them are big public projects that won’t happen without tax increment financing, and there will be some bonding required.”

The effort has the full support of city leadership, though some members of the City Council are new and don’t fully understand how tax increment works, what its benefits are and how it expands the city’s tax base.

Once the district sunsets, that additional tax base can be used to fund other city priorities, from law enforcement and fire to maintenance and housing. MRA plans to present its strategy for the remaining life of URD II to the council this spring.

Buchanan said the district has the capacity to bond a number of large projects, though some members of the City Council may be an unpredictable wildcard.

“I think there’s total recognition that these things won’t happen without bonding,” said Buchanan. “I haven’t seen any red flags go up relative to that. These priorities tie back to the city’s priorities. But if there’s no appetite for bonding, then this list is meaningless.”

The List

While unexpected opportunities or funding could shift MRA’s priority list for the district, the top goal looks to support the development of housing across a variety of price points, while emphasizing density and affordability.

The district includes the West Broadway corridor, where the city recently adopted a master plan to guide future development. The city already owns the Sleepy Inn and the Missoula Water building, and when those entities move to their new location, those properties will be available for redevelopment.

“I assume we’ll get asked to do deconstruction if nothing else, but we may need to be a financial partner in the redevelopment of that property,” Buchanan said. “The city has a pretty ambitious plan for that corridor.”

Lighting the full length of the Bitterroot Branch Trail is on MRA’s list of priorities, along with transforming the old Bitterroot Branch rail trestle over the Clark Fork River into a public bridge and trail extension. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

The priority list also includes the build-out of water mains and sidewalks within the district, along with other public infrastructure. MRA has estimated around $450,000 annually for the sidewalk work and around $500,000 for water.

The redevelopment of California Street also has been a long-time goal within the district. MRA would like to earmark $2 million for the project while leaving the city to fund the rest.

“California reconstruction has been around for a long time, but we’ve never cobbled together the resources to do it,” Buchanan said. “Straitening that road also creates a developable piece of property the city owns that could be used for housing.”

Stabilizing the bank along the Clark Fork River also plays into the goals. The city also recently acquired the Flynn Louny Ditch and is converting Broadway Island into a public park. Fish and Wildlife wants to improve fish passage within the corridor while one group looks to create a second recreational river wave.

Ownership of the ditch and the desires of other groups and organizations, coupled with plans for West Broadway, now presents an opportunity to do something with that stretch of the river, Buchanan said.

“We now have the opportunity to put that into one big project and do something special out there,” she said.

A rendering of plans for the WEST Broadway corridor, including several pieces of city-owned property.

The list also includes highly anticipated projects, such as the completion and lighting of the Bitterroot Branch Trail, along with a pedestrian crossing over the Clark Fork River on the old Bitterroot trestle.

The list allocates around $500,000 annually over the next nine years for lighting the trail, and $3.5 million to convert the trestle into a public bridge and trail extension.

“It’s another project that doesn’t happen without TIF assistance. We have an opportunity to light that entire trail and pick up the gap using state statute that allows for connectivity,” Buchanan said. “The trestle is the least expensive and more cost-effective way we’ll ever get another bridge across the river.”

City Politics

The list includes other items as well, and it was developed using priorities set by the city. That’s the case in all Urban Renewal Districts, though MRA board members believe that often gets overlooked by some members of the City Council.

Now, as in the past, not all elected officials fully understand how MRA works, and how its priorities are set by both state law and city objectives.

“The real value here is for us to communicate with people on City Council who didn’t realize this is the way we do things and have always done things,” said MRA board member Carl England. “We do have big projects that are very important in terms of the future of the district – when there is no longer a district – and we recognize they’re big-ticket items.”

MRA’s remaining goals for the district, from housing to trails to public infrastructure – along with other -projects that bring tax revenue back to the city – are fully supported by city leadership.

But if bonding becomes necessary, that requires approval of the City Council, which can be unpredictable.

“This plan really memorializes the relationship between the city and MRA and our aligned goals that have been there the whole time,” said Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer. “This list addresses that in a more formal way. I think we’re in lock step.”