Missoula County, city to begin work on historic federal building
(Missoula Current) With travertine cut from Montana rock interspersed with marble, plank floors and oak, the old federal building in downtown Missoula still bears hints of its past, one that dates back to as early as 1913.
As the saying goes, they don't build things like they used to, and it's one reason the city and county of Missoula spent years lobbying the federal government to donate the historic building to local government in exchange for its perpetual upkeep.
Now, it's time to begin the renovations and transition the sprawling facility into a one-stop shop of city and county services.
“One of the things we've talked about is a one-stop lobby for folks,” said Missoula County CAO Chris Lounsbury. “Whether you're coming in to register your motor vehicle, pay your taxes, your city water bill or parking, those will all have one location.”
On Monday, the city and county opened the building for a media tour, where they detailed their plans to tackle renovations and prepare the facility for public use. They also took the occasion to announce the facility's new name: The John Engen Local Government Building – a recognition of Missoula's late mayor.
The task facing renovation crews may be steep, given the building's sheer size and period renovations. Wood floors have been covered with patches of carpet. Lofty ceilings are hidden by drop-ceilings inlaid with florescent lights. One electrical panel is a rat's nest of old phone lines and communication cables.
Amplify that across three floors and one city block and the size of the project becomes clear.
“What we received has great potential but it's a little tired with obsolete systems and outdated assets,” said John Adams, the city's projects administrator. “I don't think it has changed since the Bush administration, and I do mean the Herbert Walker Bush administration.”
Early estimates once placed the cost of the building's renovation as high as $40 million, but that has been reduced to an estimated cost of around $17 million. Last month, the county directed a Brownfield grant from the Environment Protection Agency to begin remediating asbestos and led-based paint.
That phase of the project, which will begin soon, also includes the removal of any items containing PCBs and Mercury.
“We're going to do a backbone upgrade – the remediation work, electrical and internet technology systems. It's approachable with different funding sources,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess. “We can sell City Hall, we can stop making lease payments on the various private spaces we have downtown, and we can sell City Council chambers. That's one of the early things we can do.”
The city and county have in the past expressed interest in selling their downtown properties once their employees move into the federal building, and the proceeds will help pay down the cost of renovations.
After reviewing their options, the city and county found that renovating the federal building proved cheaper than any other plan, which at one point included building a new government building.
“We looked at four options, and this was by far the cheapest, in some ways by a factor of two or three,” said Hess. “The City Hall building is at the end of its life and the mechanical systems are failing. Renovating this not only preserves a historic building, but it gets the city and county together.”
Once the renovations are completed – sometime in 2026 – the city and county will look at selling their other holdings and consolidating services. As the two governments work to co-locate in a single space, it could also free up room for the local court system, which has struggled for space now for several years.
Lounsbury said it's one of the many efficiencies planned as the process plays out and consolidation begins.
“We're talking about co-locating all the courts. With the Clerk and Recorders Office moving into this building, it would free up enough space potentially in the county courthouse for city courts to be located.”
While parking has been an issue for some throughout the planning process, the city and county don't foresee any issues. When the building served as the headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service, it employed as many as 400 people.
“There were all those people working in this building with the same level of parking we have now,” said Hess. “We don't provide parking at City Hall. We manage downtown parking as a whole, and the parking commission will continue to do that.”
Hess added that short-term visitor parking will be offered but still remains a hurdle that needs crossing.
“If you're coming in to get a fence permit, you should be able to easily park,” Hess said.