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For Geoff Badenoch, steering downtown's rebirth over two decades has been a labor of love

Missoula's downtown reads like a family scrapbook writ large for Geoff Badenoch.

He spots the stone gargoyles on top of the old Circle Square building. He remembers where the meat-packing plant used to block the way down to Caras Park. He knows which restaurant used to be a house of ill repute, which courthouse used to be a bank.

"Every city worth the name has a history to it," Badenoch said in a recent walk through the downtown he's helped shape as the director of Missoula's Redevelopment Agency. "It has a culture to it and there are characters to it. It's like a performance on a stage that never ends."

For Badenoch, the characters are people like former mayors Bill Cregg and John Toole, music store owner and Missoula booster Earl Morgenroth and lawyer Ron MacDonald. As he wandered the places those people owned or championed or inspired, he consistently downplayed the role he played in 20 years of Missoula's rebirth.

Over the past two decades, Badenoch's agency has leveraged about $18 million in taxpayer dollars into more than $150 million in reconstruction, repairs and renovation to the city's historic core. Those projects have ranged from the $6.2 million conversion of a former bank office at Broadway and Pattee Street into the Russell Smith Federal Courthouse in 1996 (which is privately owned and still contributing taxes to the city) to $1,577 for improvements at the Uptown Cafe in 1986.

Former Mayor John Toole got much of the credit for starting downtown's revitalization. He led the campaign to make the MRA a fully staffed operation with a clear charge for downtown: "Bring it back."

That vision was large-scale, but not grandiose. It was willing to take most of a generation to complete. And a combination of luck and misfortune helped make it successful.

"Our downtown is not a theme park like some cities," Badenoch said. "When we got started, the thrust of urban renewal was to tear things down and restart. But in the '80s, we couldn't buy things to tear down. The interest rates were too high. So the genius of the market said: 'Rehabilitate - don't demolish.' We started taking 70-year-old buildings and figuring out how to give them 30 years more."

The example of the Palace Hotel stands just off the center of downtown. For years, it was known as the one-story building with a five-story roof. Its inside was so decayed that an earthquake would have dumped the whole structure into Ryman Street.

To complicate matters, the building is really two mismatched parts. The half built in 1910, with thunderbird motifs around its sixth floor, was in the worst shape. The yellow-and-gray portion to the east was built in 1941 with just five stories. Old poker players recall a semi-secret card room that was sneaked into a gap between the first and second floors.

Saving the building presented a list of challenges. The best source of money was low-income housing tax credits. But to qualify, the whole building would have to be handicapped-accessible. That seemed impossible given the staggered floor system.

But it came together. A new elevator solved the floor access problem. And installing the elevator gave engineers a chance to build an earthquake-proof core for the buildings, with support struts coming out like branches of a tree to strengthen the upper stories. Then they hung a bridge between the Palace and the city's new Central Park structure across the alley. That provided convenient parking for residents and additional structural stability for the building.

"And it came together for about $450,000 (in MRA contributions - about 10 percent of the total project cost)," Badenoch said. "That's about $10,000 a unit for downtown housing. That's a hell of a bargain. It had stood empty for 15 years."

Badenoch has a passion for details. It's a skill essential in drafting the complicated, multiparty contracts that MRA has fostered. He notices the differences between buildings with real stonework and those that use an ersatz form of blown concrete. He spots a damaged rail on the new Orange Street Bridge and makes a mental note to get it fixed. He sees the mix of 19-year-old skateboarders and 40-year-old fathers with children all fooling around on the Ron MacDonald Riverfront Trail System.

"Look at Caras Park," he said. "It's dirt and bricks and concrete blocks laid on the ground. But people will be inventing ways to use that park long after I'm gone."

And it came together by grabbing an opportunity presented when Missoula's founding railroads offered up their track easements for public use - if anybody was ready to accept them. MRA board members, particularly MacDonald, scrambled at the chance and Badenoch has spent the subsequent years augmenting it.

"Twenty years ago we had precious little to reclaim of our legacy as a place where "a river runs through it," Badenoch told the Missoula City Council in his farewell comments. "The need for constant stewardship of the river that defines us will never end."

Neither will the balancing act between doing what's necessary and doing what's nice. Badenoch said much of his labor has come in turning a project from basic to better, so that time spent in public spaces becomes more nourishing than it might have been.

"MRA has the reputation of being a good partner," Badenoch said. "Are we an agent of the city or an agent of the developers? There's no value in making that distinction. We speak the language of the developers and the language of the public. We have to be a conduit between both worlds."

That space on the bridge hasn't always been pleasant. Badenoch caught flak from both sides of the recent effort to build a civic stadium on the south bank of the Clark Fork River, as neighborhood advocates clashed with volunteer business leaders over how and if the $9 million project should go forward. MRA ended up contributing $1 million in direct construction funds and up to another $1 million in development of public trails, easements, utility work and parking for the baseball stadium.

"Don't ever forget the genius of the marketplace," Badenoch likes to say. "I would rather work with a businessman than a dreamer - they're interested in getting things done and making their money. It's not a crime to make money. But just because they have money, they don't get to do whatever they want. I always try to avoid the 'Yes, but …' We try to make it 'Yes, and … ' "

For example, when the city was scratching for places to put more parking, the top idea was to build a deck next to the First Interstate Bank building next to the Higgins Avenue Bridge. But that project was both too expensive and too tame. Badenoch also knew that investor Allen Fetscher wanted to build a new office building. Combining those two projects resulted in the Millennium Building and a new parking structure, with the Bank Street Pedestrian Mall thrown in as a bonus.

"I don't know how the bank and Allen Fetscher got together and sold that building, and frankly I don't care," Badenoch said. "What I know is we all got together and got a great building."

The MRA has never had a goal of a certain number of projects to finish each year or a certain amount that must be spent. Badenoch said forward progress was a better motivator, in any case. The challenge of bringing together those with plans and those with resources was often its own reward.

"You go to Helena, and there's no one there," Badenoch said. "In Missoula, people know who we are and they know to come to us. We constantly had the door open and the lights on. We were ready for business. That's the goal - to be known as a good partner."

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

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