By Martin Kidston
As Missoula Mayor John Engen sets his sights on a reelection bid in 2017, he’ll do so with several significant challenges ahead.
Over the past year, the city’s longest-serving mayor has formed a new office to address Missoula’s housing shortage, and he managed to wrestle a small water utility away from its corporate owner in a series of sweeping court victories.
Yet looking to the year ahead, Engen said the work is far from done. When the city rings in the New Year, this year’s victories will become next year’s challenges, and the mayor is ready to buckle down and face them one by one.
“Housing continues to be a critical component of what we need to do,” Engen said. “It’s about getting people off the street and continuing to work on the student housing components. It’s about finding workforce housing and housing for seniors. It continues to be a challenge and an opportunity for us.”
Seated in his office, Engen reflected on aspects of the past year, one that saw the city win a series of court victories in its effort to acquire Mountain Water, including a favorable August ruling by the Montana Supreme Court.
But the legal bills have mounted in the city’s fight to take ownership of the utility, reaching roughly $13.9 million. Engen admits that’s well beyond initial estimations, though he’s taken ownership of the cost and believes the legal challenges have nearly run their course.
“It never goes exactly the way you hope it will go, but the fact of the matter is, we’ve made steady progress in the most important arena there is in this community, in my opinion,” he said. “Hindsight is what it is and it’s hard to believe the journey has been this long. But if I had to do it over, I would do it again.”
Reflecting back on the successes of the past year, Engen believes the city’s progress in acquiring its drinking water system stands above the rest. He also believes the city’s early efforts to address housing run a close second.
At a Missoula Redevelopment Agency meeting in June, Engen announced his intention to create a new Office of Housing and Community Development. He appointed Eran Pehan to serve as housing director, and Ellen Buchanan to serve as deputy CEO of Redevelopment, Housing and Economic Development.
As the office gains momentum and looks for novel ways to head off what Engen has described as “economic eviction,” the mayor will turn his focus to other challenges, including a lack of space in certain municipal facilities.
“We need to have a long-term plan for our facilities so we’re not doing things piecemeal,” Engen said. “We’re not intending to build Shangri La, but in terms of delivering services to the public, we need to have better plans around that.”
Engen said overcrowding in Missoula Municipal Court remains a problem, as does a lack of space for the Missoula Police Department. While the department is likely to maintain its headquarters at City Hall, additional space may be sought elsewhere for other services.
“Being able to create some auxiliary facilities that don’t require us to build a large new facility is a good place to start – appropriate places for specific needs,” Engen said. “We think that will tend to be less expensive.”
Engen will also look to the University of Montana as it gears up to name a new president. Engen said he and outgoing President Royce Engstrom have forged a solid relationship over the past few years, working in tandem to address issues facing both the city and the university, including housing and safety.
He looks to maintain that relationship with the new president.
“I’m very interested in ensuring that the future of UM and the future of the city continue to operate on parallel and cooperative courses,” Engen said. “I’d like the relationship that Royce and I began to continue into the next administration at UM, and to make sure we’re working together around all sorts of planning and economic development issues. That’s all very important.”
Engen also remains encouraged by what has evolved into something of a building boom over the last two years. In 2015, the city saw $184 million in construction projects take place, setting a new record. That figure was shattered by October of this year when the city surpassed the $215 million mark.
The projects are evident across the city, from Consumer Direct’s new $23 million headquarters building off North Reserve to the growth taking place in the Old Sawmill District. The new six-story Stockman Bank building off West Broadway has found its footing, and crews are constructing the new student housing facility on Front Street.
“The stuff we’ve got going downtown, whether it’s the Fox Hotel project or the Mercantile or student housing – Stockman Bank or the expansion of Providence (St. Patrick Hospital) facilities, that’s all really good stuff,” Engen said. “The stuff that’s happening in the Brooks corridor is significant and meaningful. There’s a tremendous amount of potential in that East Broadway corridor as well with Missoula College.”
Engen believes Missoula is ripe for growth, both on the building front as well as the economic front. He attributes a portion of that success to the city’s Urban Renewal Districts and plans to renew his focus on the districts in 2017.
“They’re really economic development zones,” Engen said. “They’re providing new job opportunities and a fresh tax base. They’re creating energy around industry clusters. All of that is good and I want us to continue to be intentional, and maybe more intentional about that.”
Back in March, Engen joined a Montana developer looking to replace the vacant Mercantile with a new branded hotel. While a small preservation group has attempted to block the development with a lawsuit, Engen remains an advocate for the project.
Still, he said, he was surprised by the controversy that surrounds it. District Court is expected to rule on the suit any day.
“I certainly expected some level of controversy, but I didn’t expect the degree of distrust on either side that appears to have caused folks to draw lines in the sand,” he said. “I still support the project.”
Engen added, “I remain in the camp that we have an opportunity to honor the (Merc). We have an opportunity to make something real and exciting happen there. We have an opportunity to revitalize a corner that’s dead today in a way that’s going to make a huge difference in the future.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org