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MRA finalizes priority list, sets goals for central Missoula district

Construction on a housing project in Urban Renewal District II. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

With nine years remaining in the life of Urban Renewal District II, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency is set to present its exit plan to the City Council, stating its goals and objectives before the district sunsets.

The plan, drafted in partnership with city officials, notes that the projects funded by MRA using tax increment have always been and remain based on the priorities set by City Council and limitations set by state law.

“We’ve made an emphasis on the fact that we base what we do on the City Council’s priorities and objectives, and we do the things we do within the confines of state law,” said MRA director Ellen Buchanan. “There was a strong suggestion that we add to this document the rational for prioritizing projects and why they were prioritized the way they were.”

The district encompasses the West Broadway Corridor, the Old Sawmill District and the central neighborhood. The district has nine years before it’s set to expire and MRA’s priorities include housing, infrastructure and work along the Clark Fork River, among other goals.

Some of the projects will prove costly but have been identified as necessary. MRA has estimated around $450,000 annually for sidewalk work and around $500,000 for water. It also has earmarked $2 million to redevelop California Street.

Other costs include $500,000 annually to light the Bitterroot Branch Trail and $3.5 million to convert the trestle over the Clark Fork River into a public bridge and trail extension.

Buchanan said MRA’s presentation to the city on its plans for the district’s last nine years will weigh the City Council’s appetite to bond major public projects.

“That presentation to the council will give us an opportunity to showcase what we’ve done in the district, historically, and that these larger projects won’t occur without issuing debt,” Buchanan said. “If there’s not an appetite to issue debt, we need to come back and rethink our priorities.”

The plan also documents the housing and infrastructure projects MRA has already done and others it wants to complete within the district, particularly those that directly address the city’s top priorities and are eligible for assistance.

City Council leadership and other elected officials are behind the plan and expect it to go before council in April.

“I have read this plan and I love it – I think it’s great,” said City Council president Gwen Jones. “The last few years there have been a lot of MRA talks. This is a wonderfully constructive tool that has come from those talks.”

Jones and MRA commissioners believe the plan allows flexibility for opportunistic projects taht might surface while also detailing the district’s goals as it nears the end of its life.

“I feel like this plan gives clear messaging to the community, to elected officials and to all stakeholders what the expectations are as part of an exit plan,” she said. “I do believe and hope it will focus those opportunities that come through the door. It’s a clear message to the community what we’re valuing and what we’re prioritizing.”

The list includes other items as well and 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 City Council.

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

“We’ve talked about taking this opportunity and using it to further educate the council people about what we do, why we do it and what we’ve done,” said MRA board member Karl Englund said. “The genesis of this was a concern that we had that we were maybe thinking about the future of MRA differently than how members of the council were thinking about it. That turned out not to be true. We’re working closely with those on the council who are part of this thing.”