An anticipated downtown project thought dead when the pandemic hit may have a second life, and partners feel confident it could see activity soon.

City CAO Dale Bickell confirmed Wednesday that the hotel and events center planned on city-owned property on the Riverfront Triangle has been revived, opening the door yet again to what's been lauded as a potentially transformative project and economic engine.

“We are confident that's going to move forward in some iteration in the short term,” Bickell said.

The city acquired the property at the corner of Orange and Front streets as a gift decades ago, and it's been sitting vacant for more than 30 years. After years of planning, zoning amendments and partnerships, a project once estimated at $100 million emerged as major anchor on the downtown corner.

As proposed before the pandemic, the project – once dubbed The Drift – would include an events center and hotel, along with a residential component on the upper floors. The city would partner by funding the construction of underground parking using Tax Increment Financing, providing hundreds of spaces.

In prior iterations, the project had also been known as Hotel Fox.

City officials haven't said what form the project would take or what developer has stepped forward, but they remain positive that activity will return sooner than later. They're also eager to see the property developed, saying it would set the stage for the remaining six acres that collectively comprise the Riverfront Triangle.

“That's a super heavy lift that has incredible potential and impact on our community,” said council member Gwen Jones and a member of the project's steering committee. “We've had this dormant asset sitting in our downtown that could be an anchor for the west side of our downtown.”

The Riverfront Triangle in downtown Missoula has been master planned and could see activity soon, city officials suggested Wednesday.
The Riverfront Triangle in downtown Missoula has been master planned and could see activity soon, city officials suggested Wednesday.

A master agreement for the parcel was signed in 2017 between the city and Hotel Fox Partners, a development team that included the Farren Group, which planned to build the hotel and conference center. The group also purchase several surrounding properties and master planned the entire site to include the addition of housing, office and commercial uses.

In 2019, however, Clark Fork Riverfront Properties assumed the development rights from Hotel Fox for the city-owned parcel only. The new owner also intended to construct a hotel and entertainment venue. The project was set to break ground last year when the pandemic hit.

While the economic impacts of the pandemic put an end to the hotel project, MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said in June that a new team of developers was interested in the parcel. The hotel project, when combined with the Scott Street housing project, would create roughly $2.7 million in newly taxable value, city officials said Wednesday.

The city has resisted other lesser development opportunities on the parcel, hoping the hotel and events center would come to fruition. A study conducted by the national planning firm Conventions Sports and Leisure in 2015 estimated that a Missoula conference center alone would bring $14 million in direct economic impact to the community each year.

“There was a strong feeling that we needed to use it (the property) as wisely as possible to have a transformative project there,” said Jones. “There could have been other things built over the years that would have been far more minimal.”