The Missoula couple behind the Top Hat, the Kettlehouse Amphitheater and The Wilma Theater are unveiling plans for their most ambitious project yet: A $100 million commercial development in downtown Missoula, including a 10-story boutique-style hotel with upper-level condos, a 6,000-capacity civic event center and two new restaurants.
Nick and Robin Checota have been working on an agreement for the city-owned parcel at the Riverfront Triangle at the corner of Orange Street and West Front Street, next to the Clark Fork River.
“From our standpoint, this is a once-in-a-lifetime, transformational project,” Nick Checota told the Missoulian on Monday. “This is taking a piece of property on the riverfront, a really marquee piece of downtown property, and setting the tone for the whole Broadway corridor development.”
They’re proposing to "take assignment of" the development rights to the land from Hotel Fox Partners. Under that arrangement, Nick Checota would assume responsibility for the hotel, conference center, two restaurants and a 400-stall parking structure. The new civic event center, described by Checota as “world-class” and “state-of-the-art,” would be roughly four times the size of the Wilma Theater and would be able to accommodate traveling Broadway plays, T.E.D. talks, large banquets, culturally-related gatherings, weddings and musical acts year-round.
What Checota is particularly excited about is building a project from scratch that will be focused toward Missoula’s scenic natural centerpiece.
“The site provides a unique opportunity for Missoula to have a development that faces and integrates with the river and river trail system,” he said. “Too often in the past, the river has been ignored by downtown developments. We see the Clark Fork as the front door of this project, creating a civic space that strongly relates to the natural beauty of our community.”
He noted the architecture will be heavily influenced by the river, and his company would operate the restaurants, just like they already operate the Top Hat restaurant.
Checota’s project will be only on the city-owned land south of West Front Street. Farran Realty Partners, the local developers leading the entire Riverfront Triangle Project, will turn their attention to master planning the rest of the site and developing commercial, retail and residential projects on other portions of the five acres.
“We see this project as a transformational project for Missoula,” said Jim McLeod of Farran. “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.”
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.
The agreement Checota is taking over is nearly the same as the agreement Hotel Fox Partners already reached with the city to develop the property, except for a two-month deadline extension to submit construction documents.
"The new facility will create a cultural civic center for the Missoula community, as well as serve as a destination venue for a broader regional audience,” said Missoula mayor John Engen. “There is no other facility in the region that can successfully accommodate this range of events. It will continue to expand on Missoula’s growing reputation as a cultural hub in the Northwest.”
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 constructed over 1,000,000 square feet of medical properties around the U.S., which he said represents $1 billion worth of real estate.
“Nick has a proven track record of developing and operating downtown Missoula businesses,” McLeod said. “Nick’s combination of real estate development, service industry and entertainment experience made him uniquely qualified to assume this portion of the Riverfront Triangle project.”
Hotel Fox Partners have had problems and delays in attracting investors to the project, resulting in the city approving a six-month extension deadline to submit construction documents. The Checotas are now requesting another two-month extension, which if approved would make the final deadline July 22, 2020.
"We're going to get it done," Checota told the Missoulian. "This is obviously a huge project, but you will see the same kind of urgency and timeline as when we built the Kettlehouse Amphitheater. Our goal is to be under construction this summer (of 2020)."
He said the project is going to require roughly $15 million in initial equity.
"My wife and I will be putting in a big chunk of that, but we're also talking to a handful of very prominent business people that would invest," he said. "These are very name-recognized, big Missoulian investors. This is in many ways a civic center, so I think the operation should be local, the hotel should be local, the money and capital should be local. We're committed to designing and building it with 90% Montana contractors."
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Chris Behan, the assistant director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, wrote a memo to the MRA board explaining his thinking on the project.
“Changing the main hall to a 60,000 square foot facility (plus other ancillary uses) accommodating an audience of up to 6,000 on the main floor and balconies would be a significant expansion of the variety of possible events that would greatly improve the sustainability of both the center and hotel,” he wrote. “Currently, during popular concerts held at the Wilma and the Amphitheater, most hotel rooms in downtown are full. Larger events will spread that success to other area hotels and services.”
Behan said the variety of events that the center will be designed to feature will include types which do not have an adequate venue in Missoula, such as traveling Broadway shows and other performing arts that require a large, appropriately equipped stage.
“Art and trade shows would also be accommodated, filling part of a need identified and promoted by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce for years,” Behan wrote.
Last year, the city and the developers entered into complex financial agreements to finance the project, much of which will stay the same. Checota will be presenting the proposal the the city council on Wednesday.
The Checotas would be agreeing to 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 amended agreement would have to be approved by the city council and the MRA.
The debt on the bond would be paid back by the new property taxes generated by the project. Under the amended agreement, the Checotas, operating as Clark Fork Riverfront Properties, LLC, would then lease the conference center from the city for a potential of 75 years. Maintenance of the conference center would be the Checotas’ responsibility, as would the marketing and booking. The Checotas would own the hotel, the condos and the restaurants.
The city would also use $8.3 million in revenue bonds to purchase the 400-space public parking garage, and that money would be paid back by parking revenue. 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 the public.
Behan said Mayor John Engen, the MRA, Hotel Fox Partners and the Checotas believe this will make the project more financially feasible for all parties.
"Because of the size, scope, and interdependence of the hotel and conference center, Hotel Fox Partners have always been looking for ways to increase use of the main large room of the conference center," Behan wrote. "That room’s focus on meeting and dining space as well as its being dividable into separate functions limits its use for many events such as music and other performances, trade shows, etc."
At the same time, Behan continued, Nick and Robin Checota have been searching for an urban location for an indoor venue to host larger events, but smaller than those that may be located at the city-owned Missoula Osprey stadium.
"Discussions between the two entities, MRA, and the Mayor’s Office has resulted in an amended deal that seems to be much more financially feasible, viable in the long term, and likely has even more economic impact to downtown and the entire community," Behan said.
Checota said he wouldn't bring in a national hotel chain to run the 180-room hotel like Hilton or Marriott.
"We want the hotel to have a design concept and guest experience that is representative of Missoula," Checota said. "Our team felt that the requirements of a national chain were too restrictive and did not afford the freedom to design and create a unique customer experience.”
He said the project will also include a wellness/fitness center.
He said he believes the Missoula market is definitely ready for a year-round event center of this size, and he said local hotels already "know the value" of having so many out-of-towners come for shows.
Matt Duguid, the lead designer for Paradigm Architecture in Missoula, designed the buildings.
The Missoula City Council will discuss the proposal at 2:10 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 16 at 140 W. Pine Street.