While trying to make sure the sweet-pepper bacon bites and gazpacho shooters didn’t topple in the Hellgate wind, Missoula College chef instructor Suzanne Phillips still found time to admire the view of her future kitchen.

Nearly 200 dignitaries from the University of Montana and Missoula communities were milling around for the ceremonial earth-turning of Missoula College’s future home on Friday. While they listened to speeches, Phillips and seven instructors and students from the two-year school’s culinary arts program imagined what it will be like to have a modern facility.

“We’re bulging at the seams,” Phillips said. “We’re capped at 50 in our teaching kitchen. Our offices are in trailers. Out here, we’ll have three kitchens. We’re going to be able to have patio dining by the river, with an outdoor grill and a pizza oven. There will be a glass wall so diners can see the students cooking.”

Gov. Steve Bullock, Missoula Mayor John Engen, state Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and Associated Students of UM representatives Asa Hohman and Sarah Smith all hit on similar themes in their remarks.

Bullock noted that in the incremental world of politics, it’s hard to find tangible markers of progress. The Missoula College building is expected to be completed in 18 months, thanks to a $29 million allocation from the Montana Legislature and $3 million in private funds.

The private money includes a pledge from Blackfoot Telecommunications Group to contribute $500,000 in equipment, services, construction and cash to the Missoula College building. (The exact breakdown of that contribution was not available Friday, a Blackfoot spokesman said.)

“Everything about this building and its location is a win for the students and this community,” Christian said. “It meets their educational needs, and for the first time in a long time, it adequately meets our enrollment demand.”

When finished, Missoula College will house 30 programs in fields like business technology, computing, heavy equipment operation, nursing and other applied arts and sciences. Some students will use their associate degrees to move directly into career fields, while others might move from the college’s two-year format to UM’s four-year and advanced degree offerings.

The college’s location between MonTEC and SilverTip Apartments came after years of intense community debate over several proposed sites. Previous UM administrations had planned to use part of the South Campus area occupied by the UM Golf Course, which angered some community members. The Hellgate Canyon site also had its opponents.

“Sometimes I wonder if we could have had a naked bike ride on the golf course,” Engen joked, referring to another Missoula community controversy. But he went on to praise the purpose of the new school, which helps those whose family responsibilities might have postponed traditional educational paths or whose life changes forced a search for new skills or career paths.

Salish Indian elder Louis Adams noted that his grandmother was born just across the Clark Fork River from the school site. The frequent camping site is now covered by Washington-Grizzly Stadium. But Adams said the river still supports the fish that Salish people associated with the location: “The Place of Bull Trout.”

“It’s not us and them anymore,” Adams said during a blessing of the project. “It’s all of us together. We have to look after this great land.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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