Plans for fairgrounds remain mired in controversy



The past, present and future collided once again during a meeting of the Missoula County Fairgrounds Advisory Committee on Monday, where a plan intended to guide the fairgrounds’ future remained a stubborn work in progress.

Some members of the public continued to lament the loss of horse racing, with one regular critic accusing Missoula County commissioners of systematically dismantling the sport – one that survives at only two other Montana fairs.

Others expressed concern over a potential loss of history while another accused the advisory committee of letting business interests guide the outcome of the master plan.

The level of criticism and the lack of progress in an effort now years in the making left several committee members frustrated.

“We’re trying to do the very best we can with the tools we have to create a county fair in which there’s wide participation from all groups in the county,” said committee member Jim Sadler. “I think we’ll be able to move forward and have a community-based fair, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.”

Earlier this month, committee members broke into two groups to envision the placement of several new buildings proposed for the 46-acre property. The elements include an expanded Glacier Ice Rink, a multi-purpose building and a rodeo arena, among others.

The two resulting plans were nearly identical in vision, and they both included a 300-stall parking garage placed along South Avenue. The potential for a garage has emerged out of a public-private partnership, and it could help reduce the amount of surface parking elsewhere on the property.

But Jeff Stevens, who criticized many aspects of the plan – as well as the process used to create it – accused the committee of letting private business interests drive the plan. Committee members took issue with the suggestion.

“We don’t know anything more than that a private interest is willing to put million of dollars into parking, which will end up being heavily needed,” said committee member Chris Behan. “The opportunity to stack parking and get someone else to help pay for it – that’s an important thing.”

Stevens, who dominated much of the meeting by airing a long series of complaints, also blamed county commissioners for killing horse racing at the fair. All variations of the new plan have eliminated the race track from the fairgrounds.

“They made a systematic effort over the last decade to basically ostracize the horse-racing program,” Stevens said. “They did everything possible to discourage the people who organize the horse-racing program in this community.”

Commissioner Cola Rowley, who serves on the fairgrounds board, said eliminating the track from the master plan was not a preordained outcome, as Stevens suggested.

Rather, she said, the Fairgrounds Advisory Committee voted in 2010 to end horse racing. Plans for the fairgrounds have since evolved to accommodate other uses.

“That decision originated from this (advisory committee),” Rowley said. “It was not a preordained outcome. It was part of a public process.”

Paul Fillicetti with A&E architects will blend the various plans into a single product. He expects to have a draft ready for next month’s committee meeting.

Once the buildings are placed and the plan is more detailed, the committee will explore cost estimates and funding sources. Ballpark estimates offered Monday ranged from $30 million to $60 million, though a portion of that could be privately raised.

“The way we thought about and financed these things 120 years ago is different than 50 years ago, and even 20 years ago,” said committee member Donna Hubbert. “We’re going to need creative ways of doing it.”

Dan Hall with Preserve Historic Missoula encouraged the board to consider the property’s historic buildings, even those many believe to be beyond their useful life.

“If there are things here that are historically significant and they’re impacted, we need to have a significant discussion about that,” he said.