After more than 32 years of public service, Bruce Bender retired last week as Missoula’s chief administrative officer.
He sat in his nearly empty office with the lights off, talking about the city’s past, the Mountain Water trial and what the future holds – a future that now rests in the hands of Bender’s replacement, Dale Bickell.
Bickell, who served as the CAO for Missoula County for six years before joining the city in 2014, was born in Missoula and graduated from the University of Montana. His vision for the Garden City is similar to Bender’s, and he shared his thoughts as he steps into the new role.
“What attracted me to government is the public service aspect, and that’s really important to me,” Bickell said. “I was born in Missoula and essentially have been here all my life. The values I grew up with are the same as a lot of our constituents'.”
When asked about the city’s most pressing challenges, Bickell named the verdict in the Mountain Water trial and the upcoming budget. Missoula County District Judge Karen Townsend has yet to issue her ruling in the trial, and property taxes haven’t fully recovered from the recession.
But Bickell sees a bright future for the city. Townsend is expected to issue a ruling soon, and Missoula is entering a period of robust development, which bodes well for progress, not to mention the city’s budget.
“The last development report I saw, we’re $38 million in construction value ahead of where we were the same time last year,” said Bickell. “We have hundreds of millions of dollars in development planned in Missoula in the next few years. The city is really poised to transform.”
Bickell named the projects, including a new Missoula College and Fort Missoula Regional Park. A five-story student housing development is expected to move forward on Front Street, and Stockman Bank will build a six-story building on the corner of West Broadway and Orange Street this fall.
What’s more, Bickell said, Consumer Direct will begin its office project off North Reserve Street this year, and the first project in the Old Sawmill District will break ground next month.
Also, the developers behind a proposed hotel and convention center on the Riverfront Triangle are expected to present their vision for the downtown property this week.
“Downtown is going to look totally different in 10 years,” said Bickell. “You have the two proposed roundabouts entering the city at the two interchanges at Van Buren and Orange Street, and work on the south end of town is really going to transform that area.”
Bender signed on with the city in 1983 when the population was just 30,000 people. Much of Missoula’s urban areas sat outside the city limits, and infrastructure was sorely lacking.
He dedicated much of his 30-year career with the city ensuring that infrastructure was in place to accommodate the future, which is now upon us.
Bickell will now take the reins and ensure that vision and planning continues to evolve with the times.
“What I think the city has done a good job at, the zoning code was rewritten a few years ago and development services was created to have a better handle on development and facilitate it when it’s good,” Bickell said. “It all helps build the kind of community we want.”