The Missoula City Council approved plans to turn over development of the hotel and events center at the Riverfront Triangle to the couple behind the Top Hat, KettleHouse Amphitheater and The Wilma Theater at a special meeting Wednesday afternoon.
Nick Checota, who has worked to overhaul Missoula’s entertainment scene since purchasing the Top Hat in 2012, told the council he and his wife, Robin, believe they can make the long-stalled $100 million project pencil out, even though others have failed.
Some early plans for the city-owned parcel at the Riverfront Triangle on the corner of Orange Street and West Front Street include shifting the proposed convention center into a 6,000-capacity concert venue and multipurpose event space. The revised events center anchors a nine-story boutique-style hotel with upper-level condos, restaurants and more than 400 underground parking spaces.
Mayor John Engen said he and Checota had talked about finding a spot for a large events space like the one proposed and quickly realized the Riverfront Triangle site was an ideal option.
Engen said having a partner like Checota, who has been extremely successful in his Missoula ventures, would allow him to answer the question of whether anything would ever actually happen on the site.
“Our intention for this site has always been to have something great happen,” Engen said. “This is great in my estimation. The speed with which we’re bringing this to you has everything to do with seizing an opportunity. We have a construction schedule that could mean we’re out on the ground by July.”
The events center the Checotas, who together make up Clark Fork Riverfront Properties LLC, have proposed would be roughly four times the size of the Wilma Theater, and would be able to accommodate traveling Broadway plays, large banquets, comedy acts and music year-round.
Checota said he wouldn’t be building a lifeless glass-and-steel high rise, but would focus on amplifying Missoula’s natural areas, as the site is directly on the Clark Fork River. He noted the architecture will be heavily influenced by the river, with the “front” of the building facing the river and an extensive natural promenade.
He told the council he was committed to sourcing 90% of construction and other trade work from local businesses, and seeking to finance as much of the project as possible through local investors.
Council member Jesse Ramos asked Checota what would happen if the project went out of business, considering how interwoven the financing and ownership was with the city.
Checota said there was less risk of the project failing since he was not only developing the project, but also running the resulting businesses rather than relying on strictly real estate income.
Checota’s project will be only on the currently city-owned land south of West Front Street. Farran Realty Partners, the local developers leading the entire Riverfront Triangle Project, will continue working on the other five acres.
“We see this project as a transformational project for Missoula,” Jim McLeod of Farran told the Missoulian on Monday. “The development not only establishes an arts and cultural civic center on the river, but will serve as an economic engine for all of downtown.”
Engen stressed that turning over the hotel site to Checota would allow Farran Realty Partners to focus on building the housing and commercial property surrounding the hotel site and move everything along faster.
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Checota estimates the new event center and hotel will drive significant economic activity to Missoula and will bring in an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people a month to downtown. Based on zip-code records from customers at his other venues, he expects 35-45% of customers will come from outside Missoula County.
Before purchasing the Top Hat and The Wilma Theater and launching Logjam Presents, a local entertainment company, Checota spent his career in real estate. He told the council he has constructed over one million square feet of medical properties around the U.S., showing he had experience outside of entertainment management to pull off the massive project.
Hotel Fox Partners, the previous site developers, had problems and delays in attracting investors to the project. But Checota said he has a host of local investors ready to go in on the project and has already heard from two national companies who are interested if local funding doesn't pencil out.
In signing the development rights and responsibilities to the Checotas, some changes were made to the agreement, which multiple city council members saw as entirely beneficial to the city and community. The Checotas, the city, and the MRA are parties to the agreement, and the main changes include shifting marketing and promotion of the events center to Checota, which was previously the city’s responsibility.
Through the agreement, the couple will purchase the city-owned portion of the land for $2.3 million. Then, after the event center is built, the city would use $16.5 million in Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenue bonds to purchase the 60,000-square-foot event center.
The debt on the bond would be paid back by the new property taxes generated by the project. Under the amended agreement, the Checotas would then lease the conference center from the city for a potential of 75 years.
Maintenance of the conference center will be the Checotas’ responsibility while they are leasing it. The Checotas would continue to own the hotel, condos and restaurants.
The city also plans to purchase the 400-space public undeground parking garage with $8.3 million in parking revenue bonds and possibly also TIF money; the bonds would be paid off with parking fees. The project would not raise any new taxes on Missoula citizens. However, since the project lies within an Urban Renewal District, all new property taxes generated by new development are diverted away from the city’s general fund and put back into the district for projects that the MRA board deems beneficial to the public.
MRA assistant director Chris Behan said Checota would act as a “jet engine” in moving the project forward, as he is known for moving along all of his previous local undertakings faster than almost any other developer. In just over seven years, Checota purchased and overhauled or built from the ground up three venues in Missoula and even branched out his Logjam Presents entertainment management business into Bozeman.
Mayor Engen, the MRA, Hotel Fox Partners and the Checotas believe the changes to the events center will make the project more financially feasible for all parties.
With the Marriott recently built on the Missoula Mercantile site, and another hotel in the works on the same block, some Missoulians have wondered how many more hotels downtown needs.
But even Charles McDermid, the majority owner of the Holiday Inn downtown, said he supported the project being built.
“We are uniformly excited and enthusiastic in support of this development,” McDermid said. “Even though we don’t think it is necessarily in the best interest of the Holiday Inn, we think it is very much in the best interest of the city, the residents of the city, and the visitors that come to the city.”