Missoula fairgrounds managers are poised to break ground this summer on a new $1.15 million public trail system that will provide safe bike and pedestrian connections to schools, parks and the YMCA.

Emily Brock, the fairgrounds director, told the Missoula County Commission Tuesday that they expect to start work on the new trails in mid-June, which is part of the ongoing $19.5 million fairgrounds renovation project. Construction of the Fairway/Raceway Trail, the Stephens Trail and the Playfair Park Trail is expected to create a system that avoids the Brooks/South/Russell intersection, whose configuration is problematic for bikers and pedestrians.

“We’re out to bid now for the trails, which is great,” Brock said. “The bid opening will happen as soon as possible.”

Brock anticipates that the trail segments will be completed in 2020.

This week, Brock is working with Ellen Buchanan of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) to eventually issue bonds that will pay for the work once the trails are in the ground. Until the work is finished, the county will pay for the costs, probably using money kept in a reserve account. The county also will be responsible to find a purchaser for the bonds.

The MRA approved the request for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) dollars at a meeting in 2018, and the matter is expected to go before the Missoula City Council soon, because only the city can issue the bonds, Buchanan said.

“These trails will not only connect to bicycle and pedestrian facilities outside of the Fairgrounds, it will actually connect the (Urban Renewal) District to itself on the north and west sides at Russell/Fairview and Stephens/South,” Buchanan wrote in a 2018 memo to the MRA Board of Commissioners. “Currently the fairgrounds is fenced and not easily accessible to the public.

“If the MRA Board and city council approve the request to fund these improvements, the staff recommends that the approval be conditioned on the trails being available to the public except for events that require the fencing of areas of the perimeter, such as for confinement of livestock during certain events.”

It’s an unusual situation in that the fairgrounds is not located in an Urban Renewal District, but borders URD III on its north and west edges. Some discussions took place about adjusting that URD’s boundaries to include the fairgrounds, but that raised concerns about the amount of current capacity in the district that could be diverted from other projects for improvements on the county-owned property, Buchanan noted in her memo.

But state law does allow for TIF money to be used for “the connection of the urban renewal area or targeted economic development district to existing infrastructure outside the area or district,” Buchanan noted.

She had the city’s financial advisers run a “capacity analysis” to evaluate what other projects in URD III might be adversely affected by the $1.1 million bond, and reports that the district has “more than adequate capacity” to absorb the cost. Buchanan recommends that if the funding is approved, it be combined with bonds that will be issued to reimburse URD III for the purchase of the Montana Rail Link land and the cost of building the trail between North and Livingston avenues and the MRL Park.

“This would result in approximately $5 million in bonds, the majority of which will be tax exempt bonds,” Buchanan wrote. “This would leave the bonding capacity in URD III at between $10 million and $12 million. … With the investment that we are seeing in the Brooks corridor, URD III has a very positive outlook.”

Currently, the fairgrounds upgrades are focusing on the Commercial Building construction, according to Brock. The renovations are part of a $3.9 million preservation overhaul of the Commercial and Culinary Arts buildings, which are some of the most historic and well-used buildings in Missoula.

The work is being funded by the Fairgrounds Special District, to which the county dedicates 3 mills every year. That equaled about $650,000 this year.

“We’re putting siding on, working on the interior and working on the roof,” Brock said, adding that construction should be completed by the end of June. “The big thing we did was lift the building and pour a foundation — it had no foundation, but now it has a huge concrete slab under both the buildings. It was sinking into the ground and leaning over.”

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