Citing the need for industrial land and a better transportation grid, Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday took the first step in applying for a multimillion-dollar grant to fund the redevelopment of property west of the city near Missoula International Airport.

Commissioners signed a $23,000 contract with WGM Group to update the “Missoula County Airport Landside Infrastructure Project.” The project calls for a grid of connected streets and a plan to accommodate housing and retail, and access to a 600-acre industrial park planned south of the airfield.

“If we would have funded this in 2012, everyone we've talked to who's in this business of economic development said it would be built out right now with light industrial, and we would have created a lot of job opportunities in Missoula,” said Brent Campbell with WGM. “We've got to figure out how to crack this nut between the city and the county and the landowners out there to finish off this infrastructure.”

While the federal grant would bring $12.7 million to the project, the county must provide roughly $9 million in matching funds to make its application competitive. It currently has $2 million in tax increment financing available and nearly $5 million in right-of-way agreements.

The Missoula Airport Authority had also allocated $2 million to the project back in 2012 when the plan first came to bear. But when the federal grant wasn't approved and the project stalled, the airport redirected that money to its new passenger terminal, which is planned for construction next year.

Given the project's transformative nature, the county believes the city should have some stake in the outcome. It may ask the city to provide the $2 million needed to round out the application's required match.

“The airport is pretty much maxed out on the new facilities they're building out there,” said Campbell. “So we're talking to the city about matching potentially. We're trying to get creative about the match.”

According to the 2012 application, the project has the potential to create more than 2,400 long-term jobs. MEP has already generated interest among industrial developers and manufacturers interested in the area, though the current lack of infrastructure has been a deal breaker.

A proposed land-use map details the new road grid and development pattern envisioned with the project. WGM Group has been contracted to update the plan this month.
A proposed land-use map details the new road grid and development pattern envisioned with the project. WGM Group has been contracted to update the plan this month.

To overcome that, the plan would also complete a road grid, one envisioned years ago but never finished. Both George Elmer Drive and Mary Jane Boulevard would connect from Mullan Road to West Broadway, and other connector streets would tie into England Boulevard.

England itself would serve as the primary entrance to the airport's new development area, planned south of the existing airfield on 600 acres of land owned by the airport. Much of the right-of-way is already in place.

Completing the street grid could save commuters more than 95,000 hours of driving time over 20 years, the 2012 application suggested.

“We're trying to create more connectivity that offloads Mullan Road and the Reserve Street intersection,” said Campbell. “We're going to dramatically improve safety and connectivity just by connecting and allowing that traffic to distribute rather than concentrate.”

While the project looks to the economic benefits of new jobs, it offers other incentives as well, including housing and mixed-use development. The city could potentially annex a portion of the property once it's ready, leading commissioners to suggest it should be invested in the outcome.

“I'm assuming this is an area contemplated for annexation at some point,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “It makes total sense the city would have some level of participation.”

That issue came to bear last year when Costco proposed building its new warehouse off West Broadway, just outside the city limits. Looking to annex the property, the city attempted to impose a number of conditions on the developer that ultimately prompted Costco to look for other locations.

Yet other retail projects are already taking place outside the city along West Broadway, including a new Sears Hometown Store and a retail carpet center, which are currently under construction. With the area expected to grow and become part of the city limits at some point down the road, the county believes the city should participate in the process and contribute to the outcome.

“The city is very concerned about the land use out there and making sure we get a development pattern that's acceptable to the community,” Campbell said. “Costco created a lot of consternation with the city about retail moving along the West Broadway corridor. This land plan kind of accommodates that land use. There's going to be some work that needs to be done around this issue and how you put it into actual zoning.”

The county is expected to apply for the federal grant by mid-October. It generally takes two months for the results to come back.

Commissioners believe success could kick-start a project now years in the making and position the city, the county and airport to compete for new businesses that currently have nowhere to build. It could also set the stage for development for decades to come.

Commissioners are expected to meet this week with Missoula Mayor John Engen.

“We get a number of requests all the time from companies looking for industrial land,” said Dori Brownlow, director of the county's development district. “Right now, there just isn't any. This would help solve that issue.”