With the clock ticking on an opportunity to purchase Marshall Mountain and transform it into a hub of recreation and outdoor education, the Missoula City Council must decide whether to allocate $130,000 to fund a master plan to aid in future fundraising.
The Parks and Conservation Committee on Wednesday was slated to vote on funding the master plan but pushed its decision back for another week. Only a handful of council members voiced initial support for the project while one said she opposed it but was open to changing her mind.
Without a master plan, backers said it’s unlikely they’d be able to raise the funding needed to help purchase the former ski hill. It would also leave the city and county’s open space committee without a plan as they consider allocating open space funds toward the purchase.
“We support this planning effort and believe it’s vital to our own private efforts,” said John O’Connor with Friends of Marshall Mountain. “We have a cadre of people ready to go to work for us when the time is right to raise the funding. But we’ll only be successful if that master planning process is already in place.”
The $130,000 would enable the city to enter into a professional contract with SE Group, which would master plan Marshall Mountain Park including programming, recreational offerings, operational costs and other matters.
The mountain, located roughly 5 miles northeast of Missoula, closed as a local ski hill in 2003. It’s surrounded by federal land and is currently split into three parcels, including the 160-acre base area owned by Izzy Dog LLC.
The mid-mountain parcel also consists of 160 acres and is owned by the Five Valleys Land Trust. The last 100-acre parcel includes the upper ski runs and is under a special-use permit held by the Forest Service.
“The city currently has 10 to 16 months left in a lease agreement with an option to buy the base area,” said Morgan Valliant, the city’s conservation lands manager. “We’re also in very positive negotiations with Five Valleys Land Trust to buy the mid-mountain parcel in the acquisition the city would do.”
The city and county are currently leasing the base area from Izzy Dog, which purchased the mountain two years ago to ensure it remains accessible to the public. It gave the city an option to buy the 160-acre base for around $1.8 million. The details of the Five Valleys parcel have yet to be negotiated.
Valliant said a recent community survey found support for the city’s possible purchase and ownership of Marshall Mountain. In that survey, 47% of respondents strongly supported the purchase while 24% supported it somewhat. Another 14% weren’t sure and 15% opposed it.
“It’s really evident that as this fundraising campaign gets going, we know what it’s going to cost to acquire the mountain, but we don’t know what it’s going to cost to build, and we don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” Valliant said. “Those are critical questions that need to be answered in order to get people to give money to this project.”
If the City Council approves funding the $130,000 master plan, Valliant said that work would begin this month and run through the summer with a focus on planning and fundraising.
By fall, and with a plan in place, fundraising would become the primary focus. Come winter, the city and county’s open space committee would then begin vetting acquisition of Marshall Mountain.
The city’s lease with Izzy Dog expires next July.
“Hopefully we have the project largely funded and we’re ready to start building the phases of Marshall Mountain,” Valliant said.
Most members of the City Council have yet to take a position on funding the master plan, though a few have. Amber Sherrill, chair of the parks committee and the former executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust, described the city’s potential ownership of Marshall Mountain as a unique opportunity.
“The timing of this, being a fundraiser for many years, you can’t go to someone saying we have this great idea. You need a solid plan going forward,” she said. “Getting this done, using those opportunity funds for something like this, is going to only help save money in the long run and let the groups fundraise effectively.”
When the city created its budget for the Conservation and Stewardship Mill Levy approved by voters several years ago, it opted to place 10% of the levy’s value into a Restoration and Acquisition Reserve Fund.
As proposed, the $130,000 contract with SE Group for a master plan would be covered by that special fund. It would then be reimbursed by the Friends of Marshall Mountain during their fundraising campaign.
“Missoulians have an unsatiable appetite for open space lands and recreation lands, and this is obviously no exception,” said Sherrill. “When we passed the stewardship levy years ago, we decided to put money aside for special projects for an opportunity fund. This is a perfect use of that money because it is an opportunity.”
But not all members of the City Council are on board. Council member Sandra Vasecka questioned the survey results and said that after reading public comments, she found enough opposition to consider opposing the planning effort.
“I was looking through the comments, I saw a lot of people that were not really in support of this,” she said. “For now, I’m not going to be in support of this, but I’m really on the fence about it and could change my mind.”
The committee will vote on funding the master plan next week before moving it to the full City Council.