A toned-down version of a multipurpose events center in Missoula will cost $25 million instead of $46 million, a consultant told county officials at the courthouse Friday.

“Now we’re getting to the tough stuff,” Rob Hunden said. “Now we’re getting into the money.”

Hunden, president of the Chicago consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners, presented a plan for a 5,500-seat facility, down from 7,500 in an earlier draft.

That and trims of other amenities that could be added later, such as a ballroom and meeting rooms, shaved the $21 million.

The benefits to the community – from direct, indirect and induced spending to additional tax income to the more than 300 jobs the center could create – add up to $33 million a year, he said, not to mention the $4.3 million that local builders would make during the two-year construction period.

Commissioners seemed unsure if Hunden and the local steering committee that hired him were suggesting that Missoula County taxpayers foot the bill. Jean Curtiss made it clear that would be barking up the wrong tree.

“I’m not on board to say I’m going to put this on the ballot, or that I support anything unless there’s a huge amount of people in this county that say they support it,” Curtiss said.

“I think it would be premature to support it carte blanche,” agreed Commissioner Bill Carey. “I really believe we need to get a survey of the public.”

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But the steering committee said it didn’t request Friday’s meeting to troll for financial commitments.

“I think what we’re asking here today is if you guys will help and lend support enough to let us see what the next step is,” said Kim Latrielle of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce.

“From this point forward, it’s all up to the community – you as elected officials, along with the city, along with the business community – to say do we really want this and do we want to work together to see if we can make this happen in Missoula?”

Hunden outlined private, local, state and federal funding streams that other cities have used to build events centers.

A general obligation bond, of the kind that Missoula County voters turned down to build a new emergency operating center, is always the first option, said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

“But it’s the least likely funding mechanism out there, particularly right now. There are just too many other things in line,” Buchanan said.

The problem with a general obligation bond, said Hunden, is that “not everybody necessarily sees the benefit or utilizes the facility.”

“There may be a majority that do, but there’s certainly always a vocal minority that says, well, why would I have to pay for this? It’s not a school, it’s not necessary,” he said.

What’s becoming popular has been the creation of special districts surrounding a facility allowing for specific additional food and beverage taxes, hotel taxes and, in some cases, retail taxes.

Such districts are created by the state Legislature, so it could take longer to achieve.

“You may have to take a couple of stabs at it,” said Hunden, “but when you get it, it’s a self-sustaining kind of district, you don’t have that general obligation, and it’s off your balance sheet as a community as well.”

Friday’s meeting, which drew a couple of dozen people to the commissioners’ meeting room, had no clear resolution.

“I don’t know what the intent was,” admitted Dale Bickell, the county’s chief administrative officer. “The county really doesn’t have the capacity to pick up the project and move it forward, and I don’t think that would be the right thing to do.”

What the county could do is lend political support if state and/or federal funding are sought.

Bickell said he’ll meet with steering committee members next week to help develop a strategy. The first phase of the planning process, which Hunden detailed to a larger group at a local hotel last September, revealed the preferred siting of an events center at a visible, accessible location near Interstate 90 instead of at the county fairgrounds.

“Depending on how their community process would work, if it does steer everything toward the fairgrounds, the commissioners could make that as part of the long-term planning process,” Bickell said.

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