Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Calling it a win-win, the Missoula City Council approved spending $500,000 to build two modular bathrooms and connect them to city services for use at the Johnson Street Shelter.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency last week approved the use of tax increment to fund the cost and the City Council approved the measure on Monday.

“Doing anything but supporting this would be a disservice to the community,” said council member Mike Nugent.

The city opened the shelter on a year-round basis in September and plans to operate the facility until next year when funding runs out. City officials haven't said how they'll keep the shelter open given the annual cost.

But it's likely the costs will be covered in some form and the shelter will remain operational for the next three years. That was the timeline set by City Council, which also directed city staff to begin planning the site's redevelopment, as intended when the city purchased it. The shelter would then be relocated, but an alternate site hasn't been identified.

Given the shelter's uncertain future, the city explored a number of options to bring sanitation to the building to comply with the Missoula County Health Department. Among them, it considered adding plumbing fixtures inside the building, but that was impractical and too expensive.

Officials also considered building a metal structure outside the shelter to provide sanitation, but that carried costs exceeding $1.3 million. The city also looked at purchasing mobile bathrooms, but they weren't likely to hold up to heavy use, the city determined.

In the end, the city settled on partnering with a local builder to build modular but durable bathrooms that can be moved to other locations to meet the city's needs.

“It's incredibly durable and very sound,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said of the plans. “To build these from cross-laminated timber, they can be brought in on flatbed, hooked up to sewer, water and electricity, and when they're no longer needed, they can be picked up and taken somewhere else for use.”

The funding also includes connecting the sanitation facilities to sewer and water. The city already has installed a water line on North Avenue with an extension to the shelter. A sewer line will also be installed in the coming months.

Both improvements will serve whatever redevelopment lands on the parcel when the shelter is razed.

“This will upgrade that building and take it out of the septic business into city sanitary sewer, and provide a sewer connection to the property, which can possibly be used when it redevelops,” said Buchanan. “We end up with two modular pieces we can use and piggyback on the North Avenue water main project.”

A rendering of the sanitation trailers planned for the Johnson Street Shelter.
A rendering of the sanitation trailers planned for the Johnson Street Shelter.

The funding earmarked for the $500,000 sanitation project will be drawn from Urban Renewal District III, draining precious revenue from Midtown at a time when it's ripe for redevelopment. The Midtown Master Plan was adopted just this year and a number of projects are proposed or planned in the area.

The revenue from future development will help pad the Affordable Housing Trust Fund while the tax revenue could help the city with its shelter goals down the road. Robbing the district of its economic opportunity has some concerned, even as they support the shelter's sanitation project.

“Communication and engagement with Midtown about that shelter has been inadequate,” said Melanie Brock, the executive director of the Missoula Midtown Association and an MRA board member. “We're hoping Midtown is at the table this winter when planning for the actual redevelopment of what should have been on these eight acres begins. We're hoping it's housing, which does contribute to this citywide (homeless) problem.”

The Missoula Economic Partnership also expressed reluctance to draw funding from URD III to fund the sanitation project. That prompted the organization to partner with the United Way of Missoula County to launch a fundraising campaign to help offset the financial drain on the Midtown district.

So far, the effort has netted more than $100,000, according to officials. Such fundraising efforts may be used in the future as the city looks to cover shelter costs down the road.

“There will be infrastructure that goes in to connect those (bathrooms) to sewer and water, and that's considered an investment in that property for ultimate redevelopment,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I'm grateful to those in the community who donated to this. I think it will be a good tool in the future in however we help this (homeless) population.”

Those wishing to contribute to Johnson Street Shelter's sanitation project can contact the Missoula Economic Partnership, the United Way of Missoula County, or the City of Missoula.