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City may turn funeral home into court

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City may turn funeral home into court
City officials toured the Livingston Malletta & Geraghty Funeral Home on Tuesday as they considered funeral director Rick Evans' offer to sell the historic building. The city is looking for a new home for the Missoula Municipal Court.
Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER/Missoulian

Maybe one dignified use begets another: The next new option for a new home for Missoula's Municipal Court is the historic funeral home at the corner of Woody and West Spruce streets.

The 1930s-vintage Livingston Malletta & Geraghty Funeral Home popped into the news after Missoula funeral director Rick Evans called Mayor Mike Kadas on Monday morning and offered it for sale.

Kadas and several City Council members toured it before noon.

The council has been wrestling with what to do with the overcrowded court: Move it into the Blue Heron Building on West Pine Street that it bought for the purpose in September? Or put an addition on City Hall, a suggestion made last month by a council member? It was set for discussion Monday night.

Evans, who owns the building, heard about the discussion over lunch with Missoula real estate agent Tom Wilkins. Wilkins is on the Parking Commission, which is worried about the loss of parking an addition to City Hall would cause.

Evans owns Garden City Funeral Home. He picked up Livingston Malletta & Geraghty, Squire Simmons & Carr and Sunset Memorial Gardens in about 2000 when the Canadian company that owned them went bankrupt. It was almost an accident, he said.

He loves the building.

"I only want it to go to somebody who'll take care of it," he said Tuesday. "I'd be pretty skeptical about who I'd sell it to."

The building was probably built in 1935 or '36, he guesses; there's a historic photo of old-time funeral directors, circa 1937, hanging in the lobby. It has been in continuous use as a funeral home all its life, Evans said.

"Pretty good building," he said. "Good roof, good windows. A lot of money has been put into it over the years."

The funeral home wasn't really for sale. But it's becoming less and less viable as a business as population moves away from downtown and toward the south and west. It used to do 250 funerals a year, Evans said.

"Now we only do about 40," he said. "That's not even one a week. That's an awful lot of overhead."

"The problem is it's just like everything else," he said. "People just don't use it anymore. The volume has dropped so far. It's worth more as real estate than as a business."

The funeral home has about 50 parking spaces around it, he said, where some county employees park.

The building has about 7,000 square feet on the main floor, about 2,200 feet on the top floor and 3,000 square feet in the basement. It has brand-new doors, brand-new windows and restored pillars, he said.

Evans hasn't had it appraised, but he guesses it's worth maybe $1.5 million to $1.6 million.

When Evans called him, Kadas thought the building had so much going for it that the city had an obligation to look at it: its size, its proximity to City Hall, its parking, its availability.

During the next two weeks, the city will look at it structurally and try to estimate a remodeling cost.

"It may be that it's so much more viable than the other two that it trumps them," Kadas said.

But it may not.

Kadas favors proceeding with the Blue Heron, where the city has already done some mold remediation in the basement and has worked on six different options for remodeling it for the court, with and without offices for the Missoula Redevelopment Agency too.

"The Blue Heron is still a viable option," he said, "and from my perspective it's the best option."

The Blue Heron remodel was derailed when some council members got cold feet about the project. Last month, Councilman Don Nicholson proposed adding on to City Hall to the southwest for the court.

Kadas is against it. For one, it eliminates 10 to 14 parking spaces in an area where they're at a premium. And it's not compatible with the police shooting range in the basement of City Hall.

"It would put the courtroom right over the top of a shooting range, which is at best disconcerting," Kadas said. "It's not a very good situation."

Plus, he said, city managers are in long-term discussions about a public safety building to offer more room for the police. That may be an addition to City Hall. A hurry-up add-on for the court would eliminate flexibility before decisions are made, he said. Those decisions and a bond issue might take three or four years. During that time, Municipal Court could be operating in the Blue Heron, which would take probably 10 months to remodel. An addition to City Hall would take about 18 months.

"We're dealing with a very constrained court, and we need to do something as soon as we can," Kadas said.

Councilman Bob Lovegrove, who thinks the Blue Heron should be sold, is willing to look at the funeral home, but he's worried about the issues of older buildings. He thinks city staff should look in a three-block area for real estate around City Hall.

"We need some broader perspective on the whole thing," he said.

At least one real estate agent has contacted the city with potential buyers for the Blue Heron, he said.

The City Council will talk about the funeral home at its meeting on March 7.

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com

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