Efforts to break ground on the Rocky Mountain Exploration Center at the Missoula County Fairgrounds next spring continue to move forward, even as fundraising efforts sputtered early in the pandemic.

But with the process back on track, backers of the facility, including Missoula County, are looking to save on the cost of pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification and apply the savings to the center's educational mission.

“When the virus hit, it really threw off our fundraising, but we've gone through some reorganization and are back on track,” said Jerry Marks, the MSU extension agent for Missoula Count. “We really felt with a lot of our potential donors, that kind of declined, but the stock market has rebounded in many ways. The last couple weeks, things have moved forward in a much more positive way.”

Plans for the new facility were announced last April in a partnership between the Missoula Insectarium and the Missoula County Extension and Weed District.

As proposed, the 29,000-square-foot building would house the Weed District and local 4-H, along with other programs that would occupy around two-thirds of the facility.

The Missoula Insectarium would fill the remaining space, offering a classroom, a tropical butterfly house and a demonstration garden on wildflower pollinators. The butterfly house could have up to 25 different species of butterflies and more than 45 species of insects.

Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday approved the architectural and engineering agreement with A&E Architects and Jackson Construction, setting the groundwork for the estimated $12.5 million project.

But whether the project will pursue LEED certification or simply build with LEED approved technologies remains uncertain. It's likely that LEED certification could add more than $300,000 in costs to the project, leaving officials with other ideas.

“We could build to those certifications and not spend the extra money getting it certified,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick said. “We can make our own plaque. We can do our own education.”

The new Missoula Insectarium will include outdoor garden plots that attract different species. (Image courtesy of A&E)
The new Missoula Insectarium will include outdoor garden plots that attract different species. (Image courtesy of A&E)

Building to LEED standards but skipping the cost of certification has emerged as the preferred approach. The costs on certification remain fuzzy, but Marks said current plans would place the savings toward education.

“We'll basically pursue what we can, but we drop the accounting of everything that would give us a plaque,” Marks said. “What we'd like to do is become a little more focused on the educational efforts. We still have unknowns in regards to the amount of money we're going to be able to fundraise.”

The Rocky Mountain Exploration Center was included in the first phase of renovations slated for the Missoula County Fairgrounds, which began nearly two years ago and continue to advance.

Under an agreement signed in May, the Butterfly House must raise funds for the cost of construction related to the Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center. Those behind the project believe it will serve as a unique educational attraction when it opens, including lessons on green building technologies.

Both the city and county of Missoula have adopted goals to achieve 100% clean energy by 2035, and building in efficient ways is seen as key to getting there. The project will include a solar component, and commissioners believe the county should pursue a Renewable Energy Fund Utility Grant from NorthWestern Energy, or a USB grant.

“This is a great candidate for a USB grant,” Slotnick said. “It would totally fit with what the goals of the program are, especially given the highly public nature of it.”