Fairgrounds phone survey explores funding; some residents see preamble to a bond

Following recommendations in a plan adopted this spring, the Missoula County Fairgrounds is surveying residents on their vision for the property and how to fund it, leading some to ask if it’s a preamble to a bond.

Fairgrounds director Emily Brock said the Strategic Unification Plan completed for the county property in March encouraged the facility to “conduct public preference and strategic messaging research.”

That research is underway.

“We wanted to get a scientific assessment of the community’s priorities for Phase 2 moving forward,” Brock said. “We don’t have the results and won’t have them back until the fall.”

Page 20 of the Strategic Unification Plan encourages the fairgrounds to hire a consultant to conduct “an inclusive process” to refine and expand the strategic vision for the property.

It also sought to “discover public preferences and opinions about specific aspects of the plan,” and to “explore alternative funding sources” for Phase 2 projects.

Those projects include a livestock center, a rodeo arena, a new and expanded Glacier Ice Rink, and 10 acres of open space. The uses were included in the new fairgrounds master plan adopted by the county in 2016.

That process underwent extensive public participation.

“This next part of that work looks to all the various options that could help to fund the subsequent phases of the fairgrounds, from private donations to public alternatives,” said Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief operating officer.

Missoula County commissioners unanimously adopted a special district for the county fairgrounds last year.

Doing so enabled the county to bond as much as $19 million for Phase 1 improvements and pay it back over a 20-year period using funds generated from three mills levied by commissioners during the 2017 budgeting process.

But with Phase 2 approaching, the county is exploring additional ways to fund it.

“Three separate sections of the survey had to do with the amount of a possible bond, starting with $35 million, then $25 million, then $15 million,” said Elaine Sehnert, who received a survey call from the county. “In general, the questions concerned whether or not I would be in favor of a bond if it contained specific items, such as new ice rinks, renovation of the arena, trails and open space, livestock facilities and educational facilities.”

Sehnert said the questions also included horse racing, how often she visited the fairgrounds, if she supports trails and open space on the property, and if the fairgrounds should be moved “completely out of town.”

“There were also questions concerning the amount that property taxes would increase with each bond option,” she said. “It seemed that the county commissioners or county staff were trying to see how popular the proposed ‘improvements’ to the fairgrounds would be, how much money people would be willing to pay in tax increases, and which specific additions would be the most likely to appeal to people.”

Rocky Sehnert believes the county could be exploring a public bond, though county commissioners denied it when asked last week. He accused the county of double-dipping to pay for projects used by specific groups, such as rodeos and ice sports.

“This means we would have a taxing special district that the county set up which includes only the fairgrounds property, which is not taxable, supported by a countywide bond on all other (projects) with the proceeds to be given to this special district to spend,” Sehnert said.

“This is outrageous because it goes back on the promise of no new taxes to support the fairgrounds redevelopment. But it’s also a convoluted and unnecessarily complex means of financing a public works project.”

Last week, commissioners approved the final design contract for two projects associated with Phase 1 of the fairgrounds redevelopment.

That included a $50,000 contract with A&E for the final design of a new maintenance facility, and an $82,000 contract for landscape design, including lighting, water rights and irrigation.

“This takes us all the way through construction,” Brock said. “After this, we will have all the design and contracts done for Phase 1.”