In 1864, pioneer Missoula business leaders Christopher Higgins and Francis Worden began planning for lumber and grist mills not far from Rattlesnake Creek. Their efforts laid the foundation for our community and county, now a prosperous regional center.

Today, 150 years later, folks are looking toward Missoula’s future once again. A broad range of citizen leaders from around the county have been discussing the future of Missoula city and county parks and trails. They found widespread acknowledgement of the vital importance of parks and trails to our quality of life and our economy, as well as unmet needs and missed opportunities. As a result, 113 concerned community leaders and organizations recently requested of the Missoula County Commissioners to place a parks and trails bond on the November 2014 ballot. This diverse group of businesses, sports and activity leaders, nonprofit organizations, public health advocates, parks and trails users, and neighborhood organizations needs your help.

The bond would rehabilitate aging playgrounds and enhance safety, while expanding playgrounds in neighborhoods lacking them; fully develop the much-anticipated Fort Missoula Regional Park’s trails, playgrounds, shelters and state-of-the-art athletic fields; and enhance our county trails program to provide new recreation opportunities, access to public lands, and connections between communities. In short, we want voters to support a $42 million, 20-year general obligation bond to fulfill future parks and trails needs.

Neighborhood parks help define our community and create a healthier place to live and work. Active kids are healthier and more self-confident, less likely to be overweight, and perform better in school. Free, spontaneous play – the kind that parks and playgrounds provide kids – is the most beneficial type of play. Yet many Missoula neighborhood playgrounds were built more than 30 years ago. Some are now closed or have had outdated play structures removed.

Making Fort Missoula Regional Park a community activity hub has been a community goal for nearly two decades. The project will include more than five kilometers of trails, a large community pavilion, open spaces, a dog park, playgrounds, sport courts, historical interpretative sites and tournament-quality sports fields. The Missoula City Council adopted the design plan for Fort Missoula Regional Park in 2008, and county commissioners followed suit in 2012. The fully developed Fort Missoula Regional Park will be a magnet for tourists and repeat visitors, creating a significant economic benefit to the county.

We value youth athletics more than ever. But today most Missoula teams leave on weekends due to the lack of local qualifying fields here. An average Missoula youth soccer team spends $10,000 per out-of-town tournament weekend. New tournament-quality sports fields will allow Missoula to host major competitions, keeping kids and families in town while bringing scores of teams from surrounding states, filling hotels and restaurants and providing new shoppers. Tournaments held on new playing fields are estimated to draw more than $1 million in visitor spending per tournament weekend.

An enhanced Missoula County trails program will allow Missoula County to leverage additional funds. We know, for example, that on average, Missoula County open space money provides a match that leverages five times as much funding from other sources. The bond will also help create and maintain public trails throughout the county, create new public trail connections between communities, and help fund a dedicated county trails maintenance program.

Nearly 75 percent of Missoula County households bike, hike or cross-country ski, and

80 percent support more trails. Trails bring trail-loving tourists, who spend more than average visitors. Trails help keep us fit and healthy, while improving our quality of life. Like other Montana community residents, we can prioritize, leverage new resources, and foster new collaborations for everyone’s benefit.

Back when Missoula had fewer than a dozen buildings, Higgins and Worden had a vision and made an investment. Now is the time for another investment in our future. Estimated to cost just $3 per month on a home valued at $200,000, this bond is a practical investment.

We have been overwhelmed by the broad support for parks and trails. Please join the community effort for parks and trails and urge the Missoula County Commissioners to place the bond on the November ballot.

John O’Connor and Michael Caldwell presented to Missoula County Commissioners on May 20 a request to place a bond for parks and trails on the November 2014 ballot. The letter was signed by 113 community organizations, businesses and leaders.

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