The City of Missoula and Missoula County are considering breathing new life into the old downtown federal building by consolidating some of their operations there.
In a draft letter, Mayor John Engen suggests that the city and county could acquire the mostly vacant building for free from the federal government as part of its Good Neighbor Program. In exchange, the two entities would assume responsibility for an estimated $10 million in repairs and maintenance. Engen said those repairs would be spread out over time.
The U.S. Postal Service’s Hellgate Station would continue to operate in its current location in the building, under its arrangement with the federal General Services Administration, which handles government building leases.
Rich Stebbins, a spokesman for the GSA, said GSA is conducting a review to determine whether it wants to retain or dispose of the facility, which is a standard process across the country. The building has about 99,000 usable square feet, including the post office.
Both Engen and Vickie Zeier, the county’s chief administration officer, said they’re in the early stages of discussion but added it would be a good use for the building at 200 East Broadway. It was vacated by the U.S. Forest Service in 2015, and remains empty despite efforts to attract federal and private takers.
“Lease terms that don’t generally work for the private sector and the sheer mass of the building for a limited audience of small federal agencies in the area make the prospects of tenancy unlikely,” Engen wrote in the letter. “In the meantime, the General Services Administration is operating a huge, almost-empty building, making difficult decisions around long-term maintenance and most likely deferring projects that are necessary but unfounded.”
The Forest Service had paid about $1.9 million annually to lease the space before moving out to Fort Missoula.
Engen said they’ve been talking to the Denver-based GSA region “for years” about the building and came up with this proposal about six months ago.
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“We are packed to the gills” in City Hall, Engen said. “Based on ballpark back-of-the-napkin estimates, we think most city operations in City Hall, and a few other structured sites could operate in that building. I think the county feels it’s in the same boat.
“We had folks from the General Services Administration in Denver meet with us and representatives from Sen. (Jon) Tester and (Sen.Steve) Daines’ offices, and we’re proposing that if they can’t find a federal customer or a private sector customer, the city and the county could certainly put the building to use.”
The city of Missoula owns its City Hall, while the county is paying down a loan to purchase its facility, Zeier said. The county is scheduled to discuss the letter and its proposal at its 10 a.m. meeting on Tuesday.
Neither Zeier nor Engen know how many people could be moved to the federal building, but the letter notes that the city and county could house “most municipal and county administrative functions in the building,” and is easily accessible due to its close proximity to public transportation and public parking. In addition, the letter states there is enough space in the building to also house partners in community development, which includes veterans’ and homeless services and economic and community development offices.
“We could provide convenient access to a wide variety of essential services, all in one location, while reusing a public asset, making our existing, inadequate spaces available for redevelopment, relieving the GSA of the burden of maintaining and managing a grossly underused facility, investing in deferred maintenance and revitalizing a city block in an otherwise thriving downtown,” the letter states. “We stand ready to be creative and thoughtful in terms of making a deal with GSA.”
The use and ownership of the building would involve an interlocal agreement. Engen noted on Monday that Helena and Lewis and Clark County share one building.
The facility was built in 1911 as a post office, and served as headquarters for the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service since 1914. Most of the postal functions left the building in 1974, and it was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
A description of the building on the GSA website notes the original building is separated from a 1929 expansion by a “narrow connector topped with a glass-enclosed atrium,” which was used as a greenhouse by the Forest Service. The structure was last enlarged in 1952.