Property near the old Fox Theater site at Orange and Front streets has emerged as a possible location for Missoula College.
On Tuesday, Mayor John Engen confirmed that he asked the University of Montana to consider locating its new campus alongside a potential development between West Broadway and the riverfront.
A development group is considering building the Hotel Fox and a conference facility there, and Engen said he pitched the site to UM president Royce Engstrom as an excellent place for the college – and a less costly site to build on.
“What I asked Royce to do is give it serious consideration and kick the tires, and I know he’ll do that, and I know that he’s got a lot of other things to consider that the mayor does not,” said Engen, who stressed the idea is very preliminary. “But I see a great downtown revitalization project. I see a great community project.”
Engstrom’s first consideration is selecting a site that is in the best interest of education, said Peggy Kuhr, vice president of integrated communications for UM.
She said he will first consider the college’s students and future students. He does not have a timeline to make a decision, but would like to move as quickly as possible after conversations with college faculty and the student body.
“President Engstrom has promised that he will think carefully about it. And that is where it stands right now,” Kuhr said.
She said UM will announce a public forum when the president has more details.
This year, the Montana Legislature allocated $29 million for a new Missoula College, formerly the College of Technology. The South Campus is under consideration as a location for the school, as is property on East Broadway. Fort Missoula has been mentioned as an option in the past.
Engen said he tried to stay out of the mix at first, when he assumed UM was committed to building on the South Campus. After UM announced it would consider a new location – on East Broadway – the mayor thought it made sense to broach another idea.
“It began to occur to me there might be an opportunity for a pretty remarkable partnership between the city and the university to build Missoula College in what I consider a great place,” Engen said.
For one thing, Missoula College educates students in the health professions, and putting the campus a stone’s throw from St. Patrick Hospital complements those programs, Engen said. St. Pat’s also owns some of the land in the mix south of West Broadway.
Secondly, the culinary arts program and Hotel Fox’s food service and conference center could benefit from being located adjacent to each other, he said.
“Barring the industrial arts,” he said, he sees “a very modern, urban” college would fit on the site in its entirety, and other synergies exist with business and technical professions.
“It just seems like there are so many ways this might make some sense,” Engen said. “It’s out of the box for the university for a variety of reasons, and I get that. And I’ve been reluctant to weigh in. (But) this strikes me as really smart, and I still think we could do student housing out at the Broadway site.”
Additionally, he said he believes it would save money because the city could help reduce the costs of building the school through partnerships, such as with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and the Missoula Parking Commission. Rough, preliminary estimates show the entire college could be built at the Fox site for $200 a square foot, compared to $300 a square foot on the South Campus, he said.
The mayor also said the plan would appease advocates who want to preserve the golf course at the South Campus, and it could raise the profile of the student body at Missoula College. The current campus is near the fairgrounds at the end of Stephens Avenue.
“One of the things I suggested to Royce was if Missoula College students today feel a little bit like second-class citizens, this location on the river in downtown Missoula would have them feeling like first-class citizens real fast,” Engen said.
The city of Missoula owns the 1.87 riverfront acres at Orange and Front streets, and the Hotel Fox group has a reservation on the property through Jan. 10, 2014. Earlier this year, the mayor requested the group widen the scope of its plan to include a much larger conference facility and footprint, and he said he believes the group is “enthusiastic” about the idea of including Missoula College.
“Part of this is about making that site a showcase for Missoula for a very long time,” Engen said. “And I threw a wrench in the works with the conference center, but what I was hearing out in the community was there was a need.”
In other words, instead of having one more smaller meeting facility – that competes with other hotels in Missoula – the project could be large enough to attract conferences that Missoula couldn’t otherwise accommodate. Said Engen: “It grows the pie rather than slices it.”
Working on the Hotel Fox project are the Flathead Valley’s Averill family, who operate the Lodge at Whitefish Lake and Flathead Lake Lodge; their friend Dieter Huckestein, former president of hotel operations for Hilton Hotels Corp.; and the Farran Group of Missoula.
The Farran Group’s Patrick Corrick said adding Missoula College is a possibility, but ideas for the site are still conceptual, and he does not want to make any promises to the community that the group can’t keep.
“We tend not to try and predict until we’re a little further down the path,” Corrick said. “We don’t feel it’s good policy to talk about projects before they’re real. We’re still engaged in conversations and looking at alternatives.”
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency has requested the group present a plan before the end of the year if possible, and Corrick said he “wouldn’t say no to that.”
At this point, Engen said rudimentary estimates show the land could accommodate Missoula College at 150,000 square feet; a conference center at 50,000 square feet; office buildings at 50,000 square feet; a hotel with 200 rooms; and other uses, such as retail and possibly medical offices. He said he preferred the idea was “a little more baked” before becoming public, but it’s not a secret, and it’s an interesting concept to put on the table.
“I just don’t want people to get too agitated about it,” Engen said. “It may not work for the university, and if it doesn’t, I get it. But you know, it’s an idea I think that’s worth considering.”