Missoula sidewalk

Red paint warns pedestrians of an upheaval in a sidewalk on Edith Street in Missoula's Slant Street area between Brooks Street and Stephens Avenue in November 2018. 

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency recently invested money to build 15 miles of sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods with the goal of increasing walkability, safety and access while reducing traffic congestion, according to MRA assistant director Chris Behan.

“Right now, we’ve decided that all neighborhoods should have sidewalks, whether they can afford them or not,” he said.

Behan was speaking at the Montana Downtown and Main Street Conference on Thursday in Missoula, and was part of a panel on building sustainable communities. One woman in the audience wanted to know how the sidewalks were paid for.

“Tax increment financing,” Behan explained.

Once “two or three new banks” are built in an Urban Renewal District, the new property taxes those projects generate are sometimes spent on public infrastructure, he noted. Last week, the MRA approved spending roughly $238,000 in tax increment financing to build sidewalks in many different areas of town.

“One of the things we talk about is proactive actions to attract investment, rapid investment,” Behan explained. “There’s going to be times now in the future when it’s going to become less and less convenient to be driving everywhere, parking in a big parking lot and going to a big store and leaving. Or just assuming that if you can buy everything on the internet, then big trucks are going to deliver it.

"You’re going need to be able to move around your community in better ways, so setting the table now if you possibly can.”

Moderated by Katie Deuel, the executive director of Home ReSource in Missoula, the panel focused on what Missoula is doing to reduce waste, emissions and costs to taxpayers in the long term. Home ReSource is a nonprofit that accepts donated construction waste and home-building materials and sells them at a discount. That reduces landfill waste and reliance on extractive industries that create new building materials.

Deuel said one of the biggest complaints she hears from people when she suggests investing in sustainability efforts is it’s too expensive.

Lisa Swallow, a Missoula teacher and author of the book "Green Business Practices for Dummies," said that’s a question she gets all the time when consulting for companies.

“The entry point to that value creation for most organizations or communities is harvesting operating efficiencies,” she said. “So whenever you reduce your use of materials, water or energy or reduce the amount of waste you generate, you’re saving money, right? So we call it the low-hanging fruit. Oftentimes it’s something as simple as sealing up your building envelope so you’re saving on energy bills. Oftentimes retrofitting lighting will have a pretty immediate payback. You’d be surprised at how some of these things pencil out quite quickly.”

Efficient lighting can pay for itself in just 15 months, she said.

“Everything else is just gravy,” Swallow concluded. “The way that you sell this to organizations is operating efficiency capture. The way that you sustain it is to get a commitment from the powers that be. Form a green team in the organization.”

Chase Jones, the city of Missoula’s energy conservation coordinator, said the city wants to reduce electricity use for a very simple reason.

“We don’t see energy prices going down,” he said. “They may not explode or rise hugely overnight but the curve goes (up). But if you can invest in a mid- to long-term way, or even short-term now that costs are going down, that can be a hedge against costs that you can’t control.”

That’s why the city built what was once one of the largest solar arrays in Montana on top of the Park Place parking garage downtown.

“It’s a way that you can control your operational costs,” he said. “And I’ll just say it, whether it’s popular or not, the City of Missoula believes in the science around climate change, that it’s a real thing and that we are contributing to it. That there are real impacts and costs to that."

Natural disasters are exacerbated by climate change and cost communities billions of dollars, he added.

"There are real health costs, environmental costs that often aren’t considered in the very narrow considerations of projects," Jones noted. "So it’s a good thing and it makes more sense when those costs are considered.”

Jones said that investing in sidewalks and bridges, things the Missoula Redevelopment Agency invests in, will reduce fuel costs and congestion that causes stress.

“I think there’s a day when there will be a cost on carbon,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to decide but I think it will happen someday. I think it will just further prove on top of all the other things that these are smart investments and they’re necessary.”

The conference is being hosted by the Downtown Missoula Partnership at the Holiday Inn Downtown.

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