The Montana University System will continue to explore two sites for Missoula College, and state officials expect to move closer to a final decision this summer.
Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner with the Officer of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said the state is still looking at East Broadway as an alternative building site to the South Campus.
“From our perspective, the East Broadway location remains worth examining as a viable location for Missoula College,” said McRae. “But we’ve said all along, we’re not taking the South Campus off the table. They’re both viable options in our view.”
McRae reaffirmed the benefits of each location, including their proximity to the University of Montana’s mountain campus. Both sites offer bus service, are within walking distance of student services and downtown amenities, and both are served by existing utilities.
The university system will continue to scrutinize the two locations. McRae said the state expects to have more clarity on which site it prefers this summer.
“When we drill down to a level of specificity beyond the common attributes, there will be site-specific differences,” he said. “That’s a level of detail that will still need to be fleshed out. We hope to make substantial progress on that this summer.”
The city of Missoula has not officially backed either location and officials said it’s unlikely it will. But Ward 3 City Councilman Alex Taft this week placed his full support behind the South Campus location.
At a public forum on Tuesday night, Taft suggested the East Broadway site may be too small to meet the needs of Missoula College and future growth. The location also has been named by Mayor John Engen as a possible site for additional student housing.
“I’m an advocate for the South Campus,” Taft said. “There was a long and open process for selecting that site. The process gave everybody a shot at discussing what I think will be a major economic development initiative for the city.”
Taft also noted the in-place infrastructure at both East Broadway and the South Campus, including bus service and their proximity to the main campus.
The East Broadway site includes a park-and-ride facility, something Taft looks to preserve no matter what project lands on the seven-acre property, which sits across the Clark Fork River from UM.
“There are people who will always say we don’t want this,” Taft said. “But the consensus in town is that we move forward with development on the South Campus. The university is the one that has to make that decision.”
At Tuesday’s public forum, members of Advocates for Missoula’s Future pressed the only UM official sitting on the seven-member panel with questions regarding the planning process that took place under the school’s prior administration.
The group looks to block development of the college anywhere but at Fort Missoula, and it has filed a cease-and-desist order threatening the Montana University System with a lawsuit if it builds on the South Campus or East Broadway properties.
Last year, group members initially shaped their argument as one to save open space, that being the golf course on the South Campus. When the state announced its alternative East Broadway location, the group shifted its focus, saying Missoula College must be separated from UM both in mission and proximity.
The Montana Board of Regents believes otherwise.
Advocates members also believe they’ve been cut out of the public discussion. The many meetings that have been held on the issue haven’t allowed for adequate public comment, they said.
“Public discussion has never been involved in this,” Advocates president Jack Lyon said at Tuesday’s forum. “We finally got attention when we hired a lawyer.”