The best place for a multipurpose event center in Missoula isn't at the county fairgrounds on the south side of town but next to Interstate 90 on the north.

"Our recommendation at this point is to focus the efforts on multiple sites that exist along the I-90 corridor," Rob Hunden told a roomful of business and civic leaders on Monday.

Areas west of town near the Reserve Street and Airport interchanges ranked comfortably higher than the fairgrounds or a fourth site downtown, labeled the "Old Roundhouse," said Hunden, president of the Midwestern consulting firm Hunden Strategic Partners.

Hunden also recommended looking at properties of 17 to 22 acres - 3 to 5 acres for the building itself. The optimal event center would hold 6,300 to 7,000 people in retractable seats.

That's large enough to host state high school basketball tournaments, an ability that Missoula by and large lacks now, Hunden pointed out.

He was presenting the findings of a feasibility study launched in June at the behest of a steering committee, which formed last year to look at a facility large enough to host events that aren't adequately housed in Missoula.

Those aren't necessarily conventions or conferences, but ticket-generated events such as sporting events, consumer shows, concerts or family shows, Hunden said.

"You can get some trade shows, you can get some conventions, but frankly there aren't a lot of rotating conventions in this part of the country, so we're being pretty conservative about what we could induce with that sort of use," he told the crowd.

Critical design factors such as access, visibility and the ability to expand make the interstate sites preferable. The Reserve Street-Interstate area scored 92 points out of 100 for such considerations as design, utility infrastructure and environmental impact, and availability and development costs.

The Airport Interchange scored 89 points, followed by the fairgrounds at 78. The Old Roundhouse site garnered just 53 points.

The fairgrounds scored highest in a category called "timing factors." It was the only choice to garner a perfect five for acquisition timing and ownership issues.

"Really, for you to optimize where you are as a community and what that facility could be, those sites along I-90 make the most sense," said Hunden.

He said that the exact locations near the Reserve and the Airport interchanges haven't been pinned down, though several are being looked at. A map he displayed indicated areas centered east of Reserve and Grant Creek Road, and directly north of the Airport interchange.

"Those are general locations," Hunden said. "We do know there are multiple sites between the two, but I don't think you want to tip your hand as to what the site is, as long as it meets the criteria."

The feasibility study was the first of a two-part project, and the steering committee used Monday's presentation to gauge interest in proceeding to the next phase. Cost, funding options, and ownership and management issues will be front and center then.

John Riley, a local businessman and co-chair of the steering committee, posed the question point blank to the room after Hunden's presentation.

"What's the consensus?" he asked. "Does this look like a good idea? Do you feel like it makes sense for Missoula at this point?"

The response was a round of applause.

When another member of the committee, Dale Mahlum, asked if anyone thought it wasn't a good idea to proceed, he was met by silence.

Still, there were reservations.

Jason Weiner, a city councilman, said he wants to see if the traffic impact will outweigh the overall benefits of an events center.

"That's a big sticking point at this point," he said.

Others voiced concerns about the potential for an event center to draw business away from existing facilities - the University of Montana's Adams Center, the Wilma Theater, Ogren-Allegiance Park and others.

Hunden and Bill Bouchee, co-chairman of the steering committee, stressed the support the plan has received on two occasions from UM president George Dennison and vice president Jim Foley.

The question that looms over it all, and the first one asked when Hunden threw the meeting open: How much will it cost?

"I'll say the range of costs can be vast. It really depends on everything that's included in it," he said.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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