City Council raises concerns over latest county fairgrounds plan

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By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Members of the Missoula City Council have expressed concerns with a new long-range master plan intended to guide future development of the Missoula County Fairgrounds, including it’s apparent conflict with a larger vision for the Midtown area.

Missoula County staff and the Fairgrounds Advisory Committee have spent several years working to move the fairgrounds’ master plan closer to implementation. The latest concept was released last month and details everything from parking to the location of future buildings, including a new Glacier Ice Arena.

Members of the council, who have not had a front-row seat in the planning process, got their first look at the latest plan this week. Several said the plan doesn’t fit with the surrounding neighborhood, nor does it harmonize with ongoing efforts to improve the Midtown district.

“I work with a group trying to deal with the permeability of Midtown, and we really think there’s a lot of opportunity for synergy between the fairgrounds and Midtown,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley.

Bentley expressed concern over the plan’s intent to shift access to the fairgrounds from Fairview Street to Benton Avenue. The city has worked to improve pedestrian use, trails and infrastructure along Fairview to simplify east-west connectivity.

A long-range plan for Southgate Mall and surrounding property would also make future use of Fairview. The council urged those involved with planning the fairgrounds to consider the larger picture.

“Fairview is the connection across Midtown to the mall that has all the bike lanes and where all the infrastructure is going to be,” Bentley said. “If possible, having that trail connect to Fairview would be very helpful.”

Paul Fillicetti with A&E Architects said the Fairgrounds Advisory Committee had considered keeping Fairview as the primary entrance. However, he said, the city’s preservation community fought hard to integrate the footprint of the horse track into future plans for the facility.

“That’s what this plan really tries to stress,” he said of the racetrack. “That’s not to say Fairview from the mall couldn’t be developed further, but it wouldn’t become the main entry point to the fairgrounds for pedestrians.”

Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess also expressed concerns over the plan’s placement of Glacier Ice Arena. The vision calls for a third sheet of ice and moving the arena to the corner where Russell Street, Brooks Avenue and South Avenue intersect.

“I’m concerned that the ice facility right on the corner presents a different image than the image we’re trying to project for their fairgrounds,” said Hess. “My concern is that we leave enough area for the footprint of a potential roundabout in the future. It very well could come back up again.”

Hess and other council members also said the fairgrounds plan gives too much away to surface parking. He said several thousand parking spots are located nearby at both the mall and the University of Montana, and they sit on Mountain Line’s 15-minute bus route.

“I think you could get by with significantly less parking and a commitment to a management plan that encourages transit, and charges for parking and rewards people for utilizing transit and other transportation options,” Hess said.

Ward 4 council member John DiBari had concerns as well. While the fairgrounds is comprised of 43 acres, it’s part of a larger 160-acre swath of open space that’s largely accessible to the community.

As written, he said, the fairgrounds’ plan doesn’t consider the surrounding area.

“I’d like to zoom out from just looking at the 43 acres and really try to envision how this piece of land is integrated into the rest of the context of the community,” DiBari said. “I don’t think the fairgrounds should be fenced at all. This is a public space and the public should be able to walk through it.”

Others agreed, saying that fencing adds to the public perception that the property is closed and uninviting.

“Besides being a fairgrounds, it’s really a public park – it’s an urban park,” Bentley said. “To have it fenced off is not very welcoming to the people in the neighborhood. Having a fence all the way around it is problematic.”

The city believes that future development of the fairgrounds must be sensitive to surrounding uses and provide effective circulation. It also believes that future plans must make the facility inviting while welcoming year-round use.

County Commissioners are expected to take up the issue on May 25. The city and county will attempt to come together on an agreement, though that could mean reworking the master plan. And while the property is county owned, the city may extend the boundaries to Urban Renewal District III to include the fairgrounds.

That would free up tax increment financing to aid in future facility improvements.

“Once this plan is finalized and acceptable, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency is open to incorporating the fairgrounds into the URD district,” Bentley said. “But a big part of that would be quality design and quality connections.”