The Hotel Fox is the latest proposal on the table for the city land languishing at the corner of Orange and Front streets.
The $37.6 million hotel and conference center comes with at least one catch: The developers want the city of Missoula to give them a discount on the land.
The three-acre property was appraised at $2.7 million in 2008, although the value has dropped one-third to one-half since then, according to an estimate from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.
On Wednesday, the proposal went to the Missoula City Council's Administration and Finance Committee. At least one councilman was eager to light the spark and give the Hotel Fox group exclusive right to negotiate a development agreement with the city.
"I think we've waited long enough trying to get something going on this property," said Councilman Jon Wilkins.
But councilors and one union officer want more questions answered before the committee forwards the matter to the full council for a vote. So chairwoman Stacy Rye said the committee will delve into greater detail at its Nov. 30 meeting.
Mark Anderlik, executive officer for Unite Here Local 427, asked for time to ensure some of the goals of labor are accounted for before the group conducts a feasibility study. But he praised the backers of the proposal.
"Our impression of the developers is positive, and this project has a lot of merit," Anderlik said.
Chris Behan, assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, said many members of the investment group are from western Montana, and it includes a couple of professionals who worked with Hilton and Marriott worldwide, each for more than three decades.
"They say the right words," Behan said in an earlier conversation about the project. " ‘We want this to be a landmark the community is proud of and lasts generations.' Wow. I'm sure that they picked that up in other planning documents from Missoula, but that's kind of what we're looking for."
At the meeting, Anderlik said the group originally wanted the land donated. Councilwoman Renee Mitchell wanted to know whether the redevelopment agency was going to promote giving away the property.
Behan said there are different ways to structure a deal so the developers have an incentive to choose Missoula and the city gets a sophisticated conference center with professional jobs on its riverfront - and not a freeway travel lodge.
"If we want this kind of quality in our downtown, the city has several things it can come to the table with," Behan said, including help to pay for parking and the cost of the land.
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A memo from the redevelopment agency also notes the project is in its first steps: "The Hotel Fox proposal does come with a large ‘due diligence' factor, in that if they are selected to move forward, they must immediately move from informal feasibility work to engaging a firm to conduct a market study with a regional emphasis."
And Behan cautioned the feasibility study may say the hotel doesn't pencil out. The council will vote on whether to give the Hotel Fox group exclusive rights to negotiate a development agreement for council review that "fully addresses land costs."
Since the late 1980s, the city has been trying to help bring to life a project worthy of the choice location. In 2004, the council reserved the land for a $60 million cultural center, but the Missoula Community Performing Arts Center didn't raise enough money. Four years later, that project fizzled out.
As proposed to the redevelopment agency, the Hotel Fox would have 200 to 250 rooms and a conference center. The street and riverfront level would have a lobby and retail and restaurant space.
A city memo outlines the plan as follows:
- 12,500 square feet of conference and meeting space, similar to the Hilton Garden Inn.
- 8,000 to 10,000 square feet for a health club and training center for guests and local members.
- Indoor and outdoor swimming pool overlooking the riverfront.
- 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of additional space for other retail uses.
The initial idea for funding goes like this, according to the redevelopment agency:
- New market tax credits for $8 million.
- Commercial debt at $16.1 million.
- Equity at $5 million.
- Tax increment funds from the redevelopment agency for $3.5 million to go toward parking and infrastructure.
- Other federal funds or "more traditional sources" of $5 million.