By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council has agreed to fund a $40,000 study to determine if the future location of a private school will also accomodate a public community center, one that would host winter and after-school recreational activities while serving the needs of fixed-income seniors.

Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation, said the phased study – paid with impact fees and conducted in partnership with the Missoula International School – will determine if the school's future Third Street home can also accommodate a new community center.

“This will determine if the Missoula International School site is feasible in all the ways it needs to be, from the lease agreement and the components of that agreement to size and space – all those things that are critical to all the user groups,” Gaukler said on Monday.

While other locations and partnerships remain on the table, including the Currents Aquatic Center in McCormick Park, the Third Street location has emerged as a preferred alternative.

The Missoula International School secured the site last year and plans to build a new facility on the property, located at 800 S. Third St. W., in the coming year. Before the school finalizes its plans, the city wants to determine if a new community center can be incorporated into the project.

“We know what we need for our school and our own community, and we'll be building that at a minimum,” said Julie Lennox, head of MIS. “The stuff that would be built through the partnership is more than what the school would need or use on its own. The idea is that in partnership, we're walking down this pathway together to see how far we can go.”

As it stands, Gaukler said, the city's indoor recreation space is limited, and small-scale venues for classes, dance groups and other performing arts are lacking.

The Missoula Senior Center is also looking for a new location to accommodate the city's aging population and seniors who are looking to remain active. Gaukler believes the community center could be a good fit and provide the community a wide range of uses.

“The Senior Center on Higgins Avenue is a great location, but it's a bit of a struggle because it's one big, open space,” Gaukler said. “The building is reaching a point that it needs considerable updating. This study will help us determine if we can come together as a group of partners and really maximize opportunities for citizens and leverage the greatest return on investment.”

The effort to build a Missoula community center isn't new. It began in 2000 when Parks and Recreation began working with local groups and nonprofits to define the need. The vision was further identified in a 2004 master plan guiding the Parks Department.

The current project would include an indoor gym, an indoor field and bouldering. It would also include space for art, music, dance and theater, as well as a kitchen and dining area for seniors.

Gaukler said both the Third Street property and the Currents Aquatic Center offer individual pros and cons, including capital costs and location. The cost of expanding Currents to include a community center could run as high as $20 million and include the need for a general obligation bond.

Rather than seeking a bond, Gaukler said, the city could partner with MIS and lease the shared space for roughly $775,000 a year. That figure would be offset by fees collected through use, leaving an annual subsidy of roughly $200,000.

The Missoula International School would occupy its new facility on Third Street in 2018. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“We hope to have our first answers this fall – as early as the end of September,” Gaukler said. “That would address the space need. If the answer to that is yes, we'll go into spacial relationships and look at how it pencils out. We can't move forward unless we can demonstrate a net benefit to the public.”

Lennox said the school will close on the property this week and begin looking to its own future, regardless of what happens with the city's feasibility study. The Missoula International School looks to occupy the new building in the summer of 2018.

“It seems like a great opportunity at this beginning phase to look at the site and see if there's some partnership that would benefit more of the wider school community,” said Lennox. “The intent is that they'll take whatever we come up with together as a potential uses of the space, but they'll market their own independent business study to see if it pencils out or not.”