The Missoula City Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee has authorized the mayor to sign an agreement with the Missoula International School to spend up to $40,000 to study the feasibility of sharing a community center on South Third Street at the current site of The Hive.
The Missoula International School, a private Spanish-immersion institution, is building a new facility at the site, 800 S. Third St. W. Essentially, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department wants to know whether it would be a benefit to the public to lease a portion of the school’s community center.
Under the plan, the public would have access to a year-round indoor turf field, a commercial kitchen able to prepare 150 meals a day, a gymnasium that can double as a dance floor with a stage for live music and theater, and perhaps a bouldering (climbing) facility.
Based on preliminary estimates, the city would pay $775,000 a year on a 20-year lease to rent the facility from MIS. After 20 years, the deal would have to be renegotiated.
Donna Gaukler, the director of the Parks Department, said that Missoula is sorely lacking a community center that can serve the city’s senior population while at the same time providing services for younger families. She believes this arrangement might maximize the service the public will get for a relatively low cost.
Another option on the table would be to try to get voters to pass a $20-million bond to build a new facility next to the Currents Aquatic Center, but that would end up costing taxpayers about $1.6 million per year over 20 years due to interest rates. That’s why Gaukler thinks the price the city would pay to share a space with the private school is looking like a good deal so far.
“When I look at return on investment for potential program services without necessarily having to go to a general obligation bond to expand Currents, especially with the number of general obligation bonds recently, it seemed like a good situation,” Gaukler said. “If money’s no question, I’m gonna say let’s go with a general obligation bond and build a new facility at McCormick Park. But I know that money is a question.”
Missoula voters have passed both a $42 million parks and trails bond and two bonds totaling $158 million to upgrade schools in the last few years.
Gaukler said that the plan would meet the needs of the city’s aging population and provide a space for cultural activities. The Missoula Senior Center’s Board of Directors has endorsed the plan, and there has been a lot of public planning and polling leading up to this agreement.
Although paying money to a private school to share a space is an unusual arrangement, Gaukler said MIS has been great to work with and the fact that they are starting from scratch gives the city a unique opportunity to be involved in the design process.
“We don’t have a lot of spaces for cultural activities at this time that are active and engaging,” Gaukler said. “There’s been a lot of public effort around this. We have worked with architects and user groups.”
Gaukler said that the neighborhood surrounding the site is one of the city’s highest poverty zones.
“It serves the populations that we’re looking to serve,” Gaukler said.
She said the synthetic field could double as a park for people with disabilities.
Several council members have expressed concern about the city essentially subsidizing a private school, an issue Gaukler addressed.
“Are we making a donation to a private school?” she asked. “We can’t move forward unless we can demonstrate a net benefit to the public. That’s logical and it’s legal. So 55 percent of the 76,000 square foot property would be shared use.”
Gaukler said the public would be able to use the facilities after school and on weekends year-round.
“One of the good things about sharing with a private school is there is not a lot of after-school curricular activities,” she said. “That sort of tells the story of where this partnership might make more sense than in other situations. MIS would own and operate and maintain the facility and the city leases space, just as we do from City Life (another small community center on Brooks) today, and then the Parks and Rec Department manages the programming for the community. This is not a tax referendum and not considered long-term debt.”
Gaukler said that because the center would be serving a lot of seniors who are on a fixed income, there probably wouldn’t be a profit generated from user fees.
The study will be paid for in $5,000 chunks so that if it becomes clear that the project won’t work for one side or another, then the study could be ended and the entire $40,000 won’t be spent.
“We very well could be looking at a situation where five or eight or ten years down the road, MIS is gone,” said council member Gwen Jones. “So I think that’s something to look at in terms of our investment. What are we left with at that point? There’s a lot of contingencies there.”
Gaukler said the city would make sure to have first rights to buy out the debt if MIS were to go away, so it would become a city-owned facility.
“So the benefits of at least researching this is it allows us to move forward on a very long-term goal that the community has,” Gaukler said. “It allows us to meet the needs of several different demographics, socioeconomics and age groups.
"The Senior Center is very pressed. They have about two and a half years left in cash and need to make some decisions on where their services and programs will go next. So timing is important to them. We’re looking at this as a financial decision in lieu of a general obligation bond. This has been something that we’ve been talking about at the city since 1991.”