Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Missoula County this week approved a contract amendment to help finish up work at the Gerald Marks Exploration Center and Rocky Mountain Gardens at the fairgrounds.

The $1.4 million contract represents the last of five packages to finish the project, which has been planned now for several years and is moving closer to opening.

“This will bring us to completion for our facility at the fairgrounds,” said Jerry Marks. “We're also raising dollars in addition to this for our gardens.”

Marks has led the Missoula County Extension and Weed District for more than five decades, and he helped spearhead the financing and construction of the $16 million exploration center and gardens, which now bear his name.

With the structure nearing completion, Marks said the focus has turned toward creating the gardens. The final bid package includes site grading, paths, and electric and lighting for the gardens, along with a solar array.

“Some of that will be done this summer and we'll finish it up next year,” said Marks. “We have some topsoil sitting out at Fort Missoula that's going to be hauled in.”

The new Missoula Insectarium will include outdoor garden plots that attract different species. (Image courtesy of A&E)
The Rocky Mountain Garden and Exploration Center will include an outdoor garden and insectarium demonstrating the role of pollinators. (Image courtesy of A&E)

Marks said the topsoil was taken from the Sxwtpqyen area during the grading and excavation work needed to place the area's infrastructure. The soil is fertile and will be used in the garden display at the new center.

He added that area plant nurseries and several local banks have contributed $600,000 to help complete the gardens.

“We were able to make use of some of the topsoil that came out,” said Marks. “It's been quite an experience.”

The final cost of the Exploration Center and Rocky Mountain Gardens stands at roughly $16.5 million, including $3.2 million for the Butterfly House and Insectarium, which was privately funded.

The new facility will include dedicated office space for the extension and weed district, along with a 2.5-acre garden for education and master classes. A demonstration kitchen and conference room are also included.

The butterfly house and insectarium will showcase living pollinators and the vital role they play in the global ecosystem, Marks said.