By Martin Kidston

The city received the green light on Wednesday to sign an agreement with the Missoula Food Bank to finish out a portion of the organization's new facility and lease it to the SpectrUM Discovery Area to house a new educational program.

Pending final approval by the full City Council, the agreement permits the Missoula Redevelopment Agency to invest $298,000 in tax increment financing to finish off 1,233 square feet of space at the Food Bank's new facility, located at 207 N. Catlin Street.

SpectrUM will then sublease the space from the city, where it will offer STEM education programming and partner with other community groups that offer early childhood learning.

Mayor John Engen, who requested and received approval from MRA to release the funding, said nearly half of the Food Bank's clients are children. Offering them an education while their caretakers shop for groceries will provide a learning session they may not otherwise receive.

“This is a project that lets us do something we haven't been able to do necessarily over time, and that's make a direct investment in basic community services,” said Engen. “When children are exposed, in many cases for the fist time to these services, their eyes are opened to possibilities they've never imagined before. This is a great neighborhood and place for that cooperation to happen.”

The proposal received unanimous support from members of the City Council's Admin and Finance Committee at its regular Wednesday meeting.

“This is one early example of some of the exciting things happening at MRA and the changes and leadership we're seeing from that agency,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “It's a prime example of why MRA funding is a unique and special tool that we need to preserve. This is a special project that will help with redevelopment of the neighborhood.”

The funding will come from available funds withing Urban Renewal District II. The money includes $216,300 for construction costs and $82,000 for exhibits.

The agreement calls for the city to lease the space for seven years. At the end of that period, the city will purchase the space at fair market value, minus its initial investment.

“We have talked with a commercial appraiser about what kind of square footage that kind of space would be valued at,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “He was confident that the amount of money we're investing in that 1,200 square feet would be more than adequate to constitute fair market value after seven years.”

Arron Brock, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank, and Holly Truitt, head of SpectrUM, said the agreement presents unique STEM opportunities.

Truitt said We Are Montana in the Classroom – a University of Montana program that places faculty members before younger students – has pledged to offer Saturday programming. The Missoula Public Library has also agreed to bring its WOW Bus to the site to teach early childhood literacy.

“This idea is so exciting and dynamic for those of us who work in informal education,” said Truitt.

The item will be placed on the City Council's consent agenda for a final vote on Monday.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at