Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) With the federal government poised to dispose of the downtown federal building, the city and county of Missoula are moving to enact a special district that creates a single government entity that would receive the building for free.

City officials on Monday night said the Government Services Administration could turn the mostly vacant building over as early as January, or next spring. A master plan is being developed to guide renovations of the facility for future public use.

“The other thing we're doing with this master plan is thinking about how to phase construction of the federal building,” said John Adams, the city's strategic projects administrator. “We're looking at a concept called a backbone. We'd undertake to renovate the base systems like plumbing, electrical, data and heat to make to the building usable and efficient.”

Tackling the backbone work would cost around $15 million and would be split equally between the city and county. The work would allow the building to open to the public and serve as a one-stop shop for most public services.

Adams said other development needs could then be phased in over time. He added that the city's $7 million share of the backbone work is something the city can finance without going to the taxpayers for additional revenue.

“It's an amount we can realistically fund,” he said. “It seems smart to focus our dollars on a historic building that will last forever. We'll be receiving for free one of the most important buildings in our community, and be able to restore it and dedicate it to serving our people.”

The U.S. Forest Service vacated the federal building back in 2015, and it has sat vacant ever since, less the U.S. Post Office, which still operates out front but will eventually move. Once acquisition of the building takes place, renovations would begin and city and county government would vacate their current offices and consolidate into the new facility.

That would begin a series of other possibilities for downtown properties owned by the city and county, including City Council chambers, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency office, county administration and City Hall.

For now, the future of those properties remains conceptual, whether they're sold for redevelopment or repurposed for other uses. Both the city and county also lease a number of downtown offices.

“There's a possibility that City Hall would be a key piece of financing for the federal building project. It's also something that could be repurposed as part of the police facility planning process,” said Mayor Jordan Hess. “We could also treat it like we intend to treat the library block, where we solicit private developers to come in and redevelop that block in accordance to our goals.”

As it stands, the city alone pays around $200,000 a year to lease offices downtown. The spatial needs of both the city and county have grown increasingly dire in recent years, and a study found that renovating the federal building was the least-cost option to meet those needs.

Mountain Line also has spatial needs and has expressed interest in property around City Hall. Hess said he has spoken with Mountain Line about redevelopment opportunities.

Mountain Line's downtown transfer center. (Missoula Current file photo)
Mountain Line's downtown transfer center. (Missoula Current file photo)

“The city owns the transfer center on a lease arrangement,” Hess said. “We are very committed to making sure Mountain Line has an adequate transfer facility downtown. We don't have anything specific planned, but we'll make sure we're working collaboratively and have a clear runway for whatever that looks like.”

Initial figures presented with the acquisition and renovation of the federal building ran as high as $40 million. But Dale Bickell, the city's chief administrative officer, said Monday that the figure was simply included in a list of options.

The actual price for backbone construction is far less at around $15 million, and with the city responsible for half of that, it's an achievable figure, Bickell said.

“The intention is today, with the number we're talking about, that we'd be able to pay for this out of our current resources,” Bickell said. “The other thing we're looking at are new federal grant resources with the Infrastructure Bill and the Inflation Reduction Act. We'll be looking at programs that are eligible for costs related to backbone needs and energy efficiencies.”