By Martin Kidston

The abandoned lumber yard on Third Street doesn't look like much, just a collection of rusting tin buildings and a massive warehouse cluttered with a hodgepodge of Missoula's past – movie theater seats, aluminum piping and a bouquet of plastic flowers.

But by the summer of 2018, the 4-acre property will give way to a new Missoula International School, where today's students will learn to solve tomorrow's global challenges.

“We actually started in this neighborhood over on Fifth Street in a little house,” said Julie Lennox, head of MIS. “We're kind of coming home again to the original neighborhood.”

MIS, a private Spanish immersion school, is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It closed on the Third Street property on Tuesday, and the single key clutched in Lennox' hand marks the newness of the deal.

While Lennox expects deconstruction to begin on the site this fall, what happens over the next year could take a number of forms. MIS will build a school regardless, though it's currently seeking partners to help meet a number of community needs.

The city's Department of Parks and Recreation has already received funding approval to continue a feasibility study that, among other things, will help determine if the Third Street location can also meet the city's vision for an integrated community center.

That project would see the city lease portions of the site for indoor recreation, small-scale performing arts, and new accommodations for the Missoula Senior Center, among other uses.

Doing so may come at a reduced cost, according to city officials. The cost of building a new community center at other locations could run as high as $20 million and require a general obligation bond. Leasing the space in a partnership with MIS would cost roughly $200,000 a year.

“They have wanted to develop a project like that for quite some time, but funding, timing and location has been the issue,” said Lennox. “This site brings some interesting funding, timing and location opportunities together. We're walking down the path with the city right now, but if for some reason that didn't happen, we'd seek our own partners.”

Stepping outside the lumber warehouse, Lennox considers the property's size and location. Growing as Missoula is, finding four unified acres near the heart of the city is no easy task.

The property is bounded by Third Street to the south and First Street to the north. An unfinished stretch of the Bitterroot Branch Trail runs just beyond the fenceline, and construction in the Old Sawmill District stands within view.

McCormick Park is just to the north and with decent city planning, the property could easily be linked with the growing downtown district. If a senior center were to land on the Third Street property, its proximity to an active senior living center planned for the Old Sawmill District could centralize services for the city's aging population.

“We also see some opportunity for some recreation and cultural facilities that can serve other needs in the community, not just the school,” said Lennox. “I think there are some other partners out there that would be interested in that.”

What is certain, Lennox said, is that MIS plans to construct its new primary school in the spring of 2017, with plans to open to students the following summer. MIS has settled in a number of locations over the past 20 years, but it has spent the past 12 at the Prescott School in the Lower Rattlesnake.

There, MIS has grown from its roots as a preschool on Firth Street to a primary school with 190 students. It leases the Prescott property from Missoula County Public Schools and has outgrown the facility.

“We don't have enough classrooms to meet our needs, and they're not ideal for the style of teaching and learning that we do,” said Lennox. “We've done quite a bit of remodeling to Prescott and we can't really do anything else to it. It has an enormous amount – over $2 million – in deferred maintenance just to get it up to standard.”

MIS has a lease to stay at Prescott through 2018 with an option to extend if needed. By then, Lennox said, the new school on Third Street should open, offering classroom space for up to 220 primary students.

Home to a former lumber yard, the 4-acre site is bounded by First and Third streets within walking distance of downtown Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“We do a lot of collaborative learning in small groups, big groups, and lots of community events, so we want space that meets those needs,” said Lennox. “We want to build a school that has the ability to grow and change as times change, and as methodology and technology changes.”

But Lennox said the school sees greater potential for the Third Street property, and it's currently looking for creative models to fund its vision. While fundraising and tuition will help pay for the project, community partnerships could also contribute to a grander outcome.

What the city decides to do could influence the project, Lennox said.

“We're looking for a creative way to find different funding sources,” said Lennox. “Some will come from our own school community supporting the growth of the school, but not all of it. Schools sit empty a lot of the time. When you have a 4-acre site with a lot of outdoor space, it can be a community resource and asset.”

Regardless of what partnerships take place, Lennox said, MIS will continue to serve its students in a new Third Street facility.

“I think the school has provided a unique opportunity for Missoula kids, with Spanish immersion and an international education that has intrigued a lot of people,” said Lennox. “We all want to live in Missoula and have a safe environment for our kids to grow up, but we also want them to know there's a world out there that's not what we have right here in Missoula.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at