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Details unveiled for $100M downtown development

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Local developer Nick Checota says he and his team are working furiously on plans for building one of the most complex and expensive single commercial projects in Missoula history.

On Thursday, Checota updated the Missoula Redevelopment Agency's board on the $100 million project he's got in the works for downtown Missoula at the Riverfront Triangle on the corner of Orange and Front streets.

It includes what he calls "one of the nicest events centers in the western U.S." with a hotel, condos, a gourmet food hall with rotating chefs, an indoor/outdoor spa, a large parking garage and an outdoor public plaza with riverfront access.

"We're moving 100 miles an hour here," Checota said. "The whole goal here is to create a community-oriented space. It really is going to be one of the more unique spaces in Missoula. It'll be a great outdoor space for people to gather."

Checota gave some intriguing details to the project as well. He said he's working with local developers Farran Realty Partners as they plan for another big project just to the west. He said the plan for that property, separate from Checota's $100 million development, is for another 200 residential units and a 50,000-square-foot building for a tech company that wants to move in with 500 employees.

Checota declined to name the company, but said they are a "commercial, young, vibrant, growing company."

Checota hopes to start construction on his portion of the project this September, if everything goes according to plan. The entire timeline including design, development and construction is expected to take roughly 30 months. He's calling the events center The Drift, and it will be city-owned but operated and leased by Logjam Presents, Checota's entertainment company. It will hold 5,500 people standing, 3,000 fully seated or 1,000 people at tables for a banquet. Checota envisions hosting traveling Broadway shows, concerts and conferences in the space. There will also be an entire floor in the hotel dedicated to conference space for local nonprofits and other organizations.

"It's a truly unique overall concept," he said. "It's a cutting-edge concept with a civic and park-like setting."

He's been touring places all over the country, and he said the advantage of being able to build it from scratch will give the entire complex a better design.

Checota said Thursday the project will create hundreds of jobs, contribute millions in property taxes to the city and will pump money into the economy by attracting tens of thousands of visitors and their spending. Logjam currently sells about 250,000 tickets a year, and about 45,000 of those are purchased by people who live outside the market.

He noted that the privately owned portions of the project, including the hotel/condo tower and its parking spots, are not getting any Tax Increment Financing from the city and will be 100% privately financed. The city has an agreement in place to use $16.5 million in TIF funds to purchase the civic events center from Checota once it's built. The money is paid back by property taxes on the project. The city is also purchasing most of the 360-space parking garage.

The developer, Checota, is paying for the huge public plaza, all the utility improvements on Front Street and is receiving no public money for the privately owned portions of the project.

He's also hiring a large team of Missoula and Montana-based architects, engineers and construction workers for the project and estimates there will be 200 new permanent jobs once it's all complete.

He and his design team are getting closer to having a final picture of what the complex will look like.

"We're working closely with Missoula Parks and Recreation to have approachable steps in terraced areas to access the plaza up from the river," he explained. "We're hiring a landscape architect, and there's going to be a lot more green in there. We envision this as a park-like environment for sure."

A rendering of what the public plaza would look like. 

His design team has revised street plans to make traffic flow smoothly and efficiently, he said. The landscape architects will give the entire development their own flourish, and there'll be art or hanging greenery covering the parking garage walls. 

"We want to create a district-like feel, a campus-type feel," he said. "There'll be a lot of interesting streetscaping. That will be a huge benefit to the design."

Ruth Reineking, an MRA board member, wanted to know more details about the food hall.

"The food concept is what's called a chef-inspired gourmet food concept," Checota explained. "You see these popping up in urban areas. It's a really cool concept. It's not a food court. We're going to find seven to eight local chefs to do niche concepts they could never do as a standalone."

Checota said they won't be "fast food" concepts.

"You might have sushi, ramen, Asian-fusion or Southern comfort food all in this," he said. "Really unique flavors."

There'll be large communal tables, he said. In large cities, he noted these types of places are popular with business people at lunch. It's a good deal for the chefs, he explained, because Logjam will handle all the back-of-house duties like dishwashing and managing the common area. That way, the chefs can try experimental foods without having to invest their own brick-and-mortar storefront. 

"The whole mission is a community and having a collaborative gathering space," Checota said. "Again, this is a way to bring the community around seven chefs and showcase what we do as a community from a food side."

He's visited about six of the food halls all over the country to see what works best, and he's talking with a company that operates Time Out Markets in places like Lisbon and London.

"It's a really cool opportunity for a local chef to incubate a concept and move on to opening their own restaurant," Checota said. "It's a risk-free environment because we centralize cleaning and dishware. Really, they just walk into this set-up situation."

He said the concept is great for families because everyone can order something different, and it would also be a great place for pre-show gatherings.

As for other portions of the development, Checota noted the hotel would have its own standalone mini-conference center that could be used by nonprofits like the Missoula Art Museum, the Zootown Arts Community Center or Home ReSource.

The third level of the hotel will feature an indoor/outdoor spa and soaking pool concept, he said. 

"It's a really interesting indoor/outdoor hot spring concept on the roof deck," Checota explained.

It will be added to the arsenal of amenities that will attract national touring acts when they decide where they want to play shows, he noted.

"It's going to be a great place for artists," he said.

The hotel lobby will be designed as a community gathering space with a "unique" and "lounge-y" coffee bar, he continued. The hotel will not have a corporate brand, but will instead be managed by Logjam.

"It isn't meant to be a stiff hotel lobby that's just for guests," he said. "The whole goal here is to create a community-oriented space, and we've been traveling around the country to see the most interesting hotel lobbies. We'll have an interesting coffee concept. It's a reversion back to the days where the hotel lobby is the center of activity in a community."

With the public plaza, Checota said he's designed a bike path for people to be able to go through the development with ease if they want to get to and from the river. He'll be putting in infrastructure such as piers next to the water in case he decides in the future to build a new pedestrian/bike bridge over the Clark Fork River.

"There's no place in the city with ADA access to the river trail system," he said. "We were able to work in a pedestrian ramp that goes through the (parking garage) and that gives us great bike access to a lot of the river trail system." 

The 27 or 29 condos on the upper three floors of the hotel tower will have their own private rooftop space and access to the hotel's cleaning and fitness services.

Ellen Buchanan, the MRA director, asked about the environmental impacts of the project.

He said the complex will be designed to green-building standards, probably LEED Gold, although he won't pursue the costly certification process.

"Our whole complex will be a green venue," he said, and his team is looking at solar and ground-sourced cooling and heating.

His other venues in town, the Top Hat, The Wilma and the KettleHouse Amphitheater, are all "zero waste venues" meaning they don't send anything to the landfill. He said his company spends an extra $70,000 a year on aluminum bottles for water from the Philipsburg Brewing Company instead of using plastic water bottles.

Checota is scheduled to submit construction documents to the MRA board later this summer. Thursday's meeting was an informational presentation by Checota, so the board took no action.

The project lies within the Front Street Urban Renewal District, so any new property taxes generated by the new project will go to the MRA instead of the city's general fund until at least 2044 to pay for public infrastructure inside the district.

A 2012 study commissioned by Mayor John Engen found that a 30,000-square-foot conference center in Missoula could generate $16 million in new economic output for the city from out-of-market spending. Checota's conference center will be 60,000 square feet and will host many more events than just conferences.

Checota also said he's working to bring more concerts to the city-owned minor-league baseball stadium next summer.

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