Editor's Note: This story was updated to reflect the dollar amount of the requested bond. 

Citing a lack of space and growing participation in both winter sports and agriculture, user groups at the Missoula County Fairgrounds on Tuesday asked the county to consider placing a $19 million general obligation bond on the November ballot to fund improvements.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on July 28 as they consider the request.

Emily Brock, the county's economic and lands director, said Glacier Ice Rink, Future Farmers of American and 4-H are asking the county to let voters decide whether they're willing to fund the improvements.

The investment would include a livestock and equestrian center, a third sheet of NHL-sized ice, and renovations to the existing Glacier Ice Rink facility. The dollar amount was placed at roughly $19 million, though the tax implication to property owners wasn't identified.

Other revenue sources would be added to the equation, supporters said.

“There's a commitment for private funding,” said supporter Jeremy Keene. “We're going to put some skin in the game.”

Renovations to the once-dilapidated fairgrounds is now years in the making. In 2021, the county sold around $14 million in revenue bonds to raise the funding needed to complete Phase 1, which has included preservation of the historic Commercial Building and the construction of a new concessions building and plaza.

Utility work, a new maintenance shop and a new learning center, along with trails and landscaping, were also included in Phase 1.

Earlier that year, the county passed on placing a separate general obligation bond on the ballot to raise the revenue needed to complete Phase 2, which includes the ice rink and livestock center.

However, the fairgrounds did complete a survey in 2019 that found moderate support for a $15 million bond – enough to fund a new livestock and horse center, new ice rinks and additional greenspace.

If the county approves the bond request for the ballot, voters will have the final say. As it stands, the ice rink is out of space and the livestock facilities are dated.

“We can invest in the fairgrounds and when we do, we invest in people,” said Keene. “We can't continue to grow these programs without more space. The limits of our facilities mean we turn people away. Those people don't get to participate and they don't get that opportunity.”

If the county does place a general obligation bond on the ballot, it would be added to several other bonds still in service if voters passed it. Voters in 2014 approved a $42 million bond for Fort Missoula Regional Park and in 2016, more than 57% of voters approved a $30 million library bond.

Other bonds have since followed including a $15 million open space bond and $500,000 stewardship levy passed in 2018 with nearly 60% approval. Voters also approved two bonds for Missoula County Public Schools totaling roughly $158 million. That has since been followed by several voter-approved increases in operating funds.

“I hear a lot about taxes,” said Keene. “People live here and are successful here because of these investments, not in spite of them.”

Phase 1 improvements to the fairgrounds have largely been completed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Phase 1 improvements to the fairgrounds have largely been completed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Still, Keene and other fairgrounds supporters said their initial vision was more than what funding could buy. Because of that, bond backers said the fairgrounds and user groups have scaled back their vision.

“There was a lot of cutting back,” Keene said. “We're going to reuse the existing ice building and renovate that. We scaled back the new sheet of ice to the point where it meets the basic needs of the programs. With livestock, we've done the same thing.”

Backers also note that the fairgrounds was built over a century ago with public funding, and so has public funding been used to create a number of popular additions to Missoula including the new library, new parks, open space and trails.

Commissioners will consider the request later this month and have asked backers to come with more information including architectural renderings, a financial breakdown and taxpayer implications.

“The one thing I appreciate about this is that it's not entirely covered by taxes,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “Tax money is not the only piece of the financing package.”