The Missoula City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee approved a Missoula Redevelopment Agency request this week for a $5 million bond to build a pedestrian bridge over Reserve Street, but not without opposition by two committee members and two business owners.
Ward 2 Councilman Adam Hertz and newly appointed Ward 4 Councilman Patrick Weasel Head opposed the bond. Hertz called into question the City Council’s oversight of MRA and the appointment of its board members.
“The MRA board oversees the spending of literally millions of dollars in the city, and they’re not directly accountable to the taxpayer,” Hertz said. “If this is the amount of oversight we have to appointing people to that board, it’s pretty pathetic.”
Hertz expressed his concerns as the committee opened its meeting with Mayor John Engen’s appointment of Melanie Brock to the MRA board. Brock will replace Rosalie Cates, who announced her resignation last month.
Hertz asked if the City Council also had an allotment of seats to appoint to the MRA board. He was told, however, that the mayor appoints the board's members and the council confirms them.
“It seems like we’re not fully doing a duty of oversight without some further application process,” Hertz said. “My preference would be to have more oversight.”
Other council members disagreed, however, and said the council does have a chance to vet the mayor’s appointments before approving them. The MRA board operates similar to other city boards, they said, including the Missoula Housing Authority.
“We do approve major funding proposals, like that ($5 million bond) brought before us here,” said Ward 3 Councilman Alex Taft. “To me, (MRA) is a great assistance to the city and its redevelopment, and we do have the oversight.”
Hertz also took issue with MRA’s request for the $5 million bond, which will fund construction of an above-grade crossing over Reserve Street.
The bridge will ferry pedestrians over the busy thoroughfare and connect Fort Missoula Regional Park and the Missoula to Lolo Trail west of Reserve with the Bitterroot Branch Trail to the east.
Ellen Buchanan, executive director of MRA, said the bridge design was changed in an effort to accommodate two businesses that sit nearby. The change increased the project’s cost $300,000. The job now sits at $4.8 million and would be funded entirely with bonds.
Buchanan told the committee the bond wouldn’t adversely impact MRA’s ability to do projects in other areas, including Urban Renewal District III. The district includes the bridge project and covers much of south Missoula.
“We’ve got sidewalks to build and work to do on Brooks and Russell (streets), and South Avenue as the main arterial,” Buchanan said. “You’ll see the kind of investment we’ve made downtown follow in URD III.”
But Hertz suggested the district had already met its redevelopment goals and should be allowed to sunset next year. Approving the bond for the pedestrian bridge would extend the district’s life for 20 more years, he said.
“I don’t understand how this (bridge) meets the goals of an urban renewal district,” Hertz said. “I don’t see an expansion of tax base from this project. I don’t see this project incentivizing any adjacent growth or redevelopment. It looks to me like a slush-fund project.”
Buchanan and other committee members agreed that URD III was improving and is gaining a healthy revenue stream, thanks in part to the redevelopment of the former Kmart property.
But they disagreed that it should sunset. Rather, they said, it still has use and was just beginning to gain momentum.
“This district really struggled for the first 10 or 12 years, and now we’re finally seeing the private sector wanting to invest in that area,” Buchanan said. “You’re getting ready to see some things happen around the mall that’s going to be very important and very critical, and tax increment is going to be fundamental in making that happen in the correct way.”
Buchanan also disagreed with Hertz on the importance of the pedestrian bridge and what it could do for the area. She said the Riverfront Trail system was the result of tax increment investments, and downtown was revitalized using the same tool.
“I would suggest one of the best investments in tax increment dollars that have been made in this city is the trail system we’ve built here,” Buchanan said. “The development of this trail system and possible connection between Missoula to Lolo and the Fort Missoula Regional Park is going to have a huge impact on both tourists and on private investment in the area.”
In public comment, Malcolm Lowe, owner of Loose Caboose, and Toby Hubbard, general manager of University Motors, accused bridge engineers DJ&A of not presenting the project in a truthful way.
The two businessmen said they weren’t brought into the proposal until late in the process. They questioned the need for the bridge, along with its chosen location.
“I think there was a considerable amount of duplicity and dishonesty in how the engineers presented what they wanted to see happen,” said Lowe. “I’m really disappointed that it’s been decided that this is the best use of $5 million.”
Several committee members said the bridge was sorely needed and would serve as a community asset. They also said the bridge would attract users to the location of the very businesses that were objecting to the project’s development.
“There’s a trail on either end of this bridge,” said Ward 1 Councilman Jason Wiener. “I’d agree it’s not an intersection that gets thought of as a place right now, but bridges make places and they do catalyze redevelopment. I would think this is the outcome you’d want.”
The committee approved the $5 million bond request with Hertz and Weasel Head casting the dissenting vote. City Council will take up the issue Monday night, when it will consider giving the project final approval and send it to full design and construction.