By Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current

Hailed as a project that “will change the landscape of downtown Missoula for the better,” the Missoula City Council on Monday unanimously approved a master development agreement for a hotel, convention center, retailers, offices and housing on nearly 9 acres along the Clark Fork River.

Mayor John Engen led the discussion, countering the criticisms of about a dozen commenters who asked the council to delay its vote until a private citizens’ group negotiated a labor agreement with the Hotel Fox Partners.

Downtown Missoula will be forever changed by the redevelopment of the “hole in the ground” west of the Orange Street Bridge, said the mayor, who remembered watching 25-cent movies at the Fox Theater, buying Swedish Fish at the old SuperAmerica gas station on the corner, and eating dinner at the nearby Mustard Seed restaurant.

The Riverfront Triangle project comes with a $150 million investment in the community, Engen said. The development will provide parks, trails, street connections, a significant amount of parking, retail and office spaces, and housing – in addition to a 200-room hotel and 29,000-square-foot convention center.

“Originally, this was going to be one hotel,” he said. “Then came a broader vision of a project that will truly make a difference in the health of our downtown. Now we have a master plan to redevelop about 9 acres of core commercial corridor.”

Council members agreed, each outlining their reasons for supporting the project. So too did longtime downtown businessman and civic advocate Dan Cederberg, who called the project “transformational.”

Cederberg remembered attending a Missoula Redevelopment Agency meeting in 1990 when board members turned down a proposal by St. Patrick Hospital to build a new hospital and medical clinic on the same site.

“We voted that down,” he said. “We said there was a better use for that property.”

Over the decades, as the ground remained bare, Cederberg said he often wondered if that 1990 vote was “a bad decision.” No more.

“There’s been a lot of talk tonight about waiting,” he said, “but time is money. I strongly urge you to move forward tonight.”

The opposition came from the Missoula Community Benefits Coalition.

Mark Anderlik, a member of the coalition and president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council AFL-CIO, delivered petitions bearing 1,000 signatures calling for the agreement to be returned to the City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee.

Anderlik asked that a paragraph be added to the development agreement requiring Hotel Fox Partners to negotiate a separate agreement with the Community Benefits Coalition, called a “labor peace agreement.”

That document would guarantee minimum amounts of affordable housing; pledge participation targets for women, low-income earners and people of color in apprenticeship programs; and address “jobs-related concerns that would avoid unnecessary labor disputes,” Anderlik said.

In addition, Anderlik said the coalition wanted to negotiate a legally binding “community benefits agreement” with Hotel Fox Partners “to make sure that in exchange for public assistance for the project, the community will benefit” through access to the riverfront trail, protection of the Clark Fork River, an energy efficient building design, respect for the hotel workers’ right to organize as a union, the use of regional building materials, use of sustainable transportation and the provision of affordable housing.

Engen, however, said a long list federal and state laws and regulations protect the Clark Fork, as well as the rights of workers to organize.

He also took exception to coalition statements that he and other city leaders are anti-labor or otherwise unsympathetic to the plights of workers.

Said Engen: “The suggestion that city officials are not supportive of organized labor is baloney. It’s not true.”

In 12 years as chief executive of the city, Engen said he has successfully negotiated labor agreements with every union representing municipal workers. Missoula’s police force is now the best paid in the state, he said.

City Council members said they, too, are supportive of unions and the work they do on behalf of local workers. In fact, council president Marilyn Marler said, there has probably never been a Missoula council more supportive of labor unions.

But council members cannot and should not relinquish their authority for negotiating and approving the master development agreement to a citizens’ group comprised of unelected members who meet in private, she said.

“This development agreement itself is the product of many years of negotiation with the developers,” Marler said. To stop the process and turn it over to the Community Benefits Coalition “would not be responsible of us at this point.”

Added Councilman John DiBari: “We do care about wages in the community. We do care about how people are treated. But if we do not move forward, we would be doing a disservice to this community.”

Councilman Jon Wilkins, himself a former labor leader, said he appreciated Anderlik’s effort but that he, too, would support the master development agreement.

“My main concern is that they hire people who are local,” Wilkins said. “And I hope those workers are union local, because if you want the best job done, those are the people who will do it.”

A half-dozen other agreements remain to be signed with the developers, Councilwoman Julie Armstrong told the audience. Those will address many of the coalition’s concerns, as will the building permit.

“Approving this master development agreement allows all those conversations to start,” she said. “If we approve this tonight, then we can talk about wages and the environment and housing and energy efficiency.”

Under the agreement approved Monday, Hotel Fox Partners will build a 200-room, full-service hotel with 10,000 square feet of meeting space atop land now owned by the city of Missoula. The developers will pay the city $2.3 million for the land, a figure based on a recent appraisal.

At the city’s request, the development group also will build a 29,000-square-foot conference center, which will then be sold to the city.

The city will issue tax increment bonds to buy the conference center, paying the debt by using tax revenue generated by the hotel and conference center.

Hotel Fox will manage the conference center and assume liability for any operating deficits. The partnership also will be responsible for normal maintenance and standard furnishings. The city will be responsible for any major repairs.

Below the conference center, Hotel Fox will build two levels of parking with 400 spaces. The city will buy the parking garage, and the Missoula Parking Commission will manage it as public parking to pay off the debt.

Developers see the project as the western bookend to downtown Missoula, with the new Missoula Public Library as the eastern piece.

The expanded vision also includes an urban-sized box store, as well as smaller retailers. A blend of housing across a variety of price points also is planned, and an office building will likely be reserved for medical use, given the development’s location across from Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Western Montana Clinic.