Missoula city and county leaders are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, homelessness and jail incarceration rates while the University of Montana is making incremental progress in increasing its lagging enrollment, according to leaders of all three institutions.
City Club Missoula hosted its annual “State of the Community” panel on Monday and featured Missoula County commissioner Cola Rowley, Missoula Mayor John Engen and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.
In a wide-ranging conversation, all three touted the work they’re doing to ameliorate challenges and promote strengths.
Rowley, speaking first, said she’s especially pleased with everything the county is doing around land-use planning for future growth, fighting climate change, redeveloping the fairgrounds and improving outcomes in the criminal justice system.
Rowley said last fall, the county won a $700,000 MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant to safely reduce the Missoula County Detention Center’s population by 18% to 22% over the next two years and “maximize the efficiency of public dollars.”
“We spend a lot of money on this system that doesn’t always work amazingly,” she explained. “So we all benefit from this effort, both financially and through increased community health and resiliency.”
Rowley said the U.S. has just 5% of the world’s total population but has 25% of the world’s total incarcerated population.
“And Montana is worse than the national average,” she said. “What’s driving this is complicated, but as a country we decided to be tough on crime.”
While overall crime rates have gone down in Montana and nationwide, she said, incarcerations for property, drug and violent crimes have gone up. According to the Jail Diversion Master Plan commissioned by Sheriff TJ McDermott, the average daily population in the county jail rose 31.4% between 2007 and 2015, and the average length of stay increased by over 50% in that time to about 15 days.
Rowley said she’s pleased with the work done so far by the county’s Criminal Justice Coordination Committee in looking at ways to reduce the jail population and allow people to make changes to return to society.
“There is a lot of evidence now that the current approach to nonviolent offenders doesn’t work for society but perpetuates a cycle of incarceration,” she said.
Rowley also said the county is on a mission to reduce greenhouse gases, saying a goal of net carbon neutrality by 2035 would reduce the carbon emissions of the county by the equivalent of taking 17,000 cars off the road every year.
Rowley is especially excited about the future of the Missoula County Fairgrounds, an area in the central part of Missoula that’s undergoing tens of millions of dollars in renovations.
“There will be a new rodeo arena with seating for 3,000 spectators and an 80,000-square-foot livestock center adjacent to the learning center,” she explained. “Glacier Ice Rink will eventually move toward the YMCA and will have three sheets of ice and four dedicated curling lanes.”
She said the current rink is over capacity, currently operating up to 18 hours a day and seeing thousands of visitors a week during the peak season.
“The expansion will increase the available ice time and increase participation,” she said.
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A new perimeter fence will make the fairgrounds “feel less like a correctional facility” and 19 acres of green space and trails will create a “rural oasis in the middle of Missoula, actualizing a decades-long planning process,” she said.
Rowley also said she's excited to break ground on a new $10 million Missoula County Extension and Weed District office combined with a tropical butterfly house and demonstration garden at the fairgrounds.
Bodnar said he’s feeling good about the University of Montana’s steps to address a 32 percent decline in its student population since 2011.
“I don’t want to minimize the depths of the challenges that the university has faced over the last decade,” he said. “They’re real. They’re not going to be solved overnight, but the reason I’m confident is I see steady, tangible progress at the University of Montana. We are moving forward.”
First, he said, the university is taking steps to ensure perceptions “align with the reality” of the campus.
“Our admissions infrastructure has undergone a massive overhaul,” he said. “From a system, from a process standpoint, we’re doing a much better job of communication to students who show an interest in the University of Montana and Missoula. And we’re getting out there and meeting students face to face.”
He said the University has revamped processes to make sure that when students do visit, they are “welcomed with open arms.”
He said the “UM Days” event recently drew 300 prospective students, where in years past it typically drew 50.
Bodnar said enrollment “doesn’t turn” overnight.
“We’ve had a smaller class after smaller class the last few years,” he said. “So on an overall basis, that enrollment number’s gonna take us a little while to get back up. The key to look at is the trend. So will we have an overall enrollment number that is larger next year? Probably not."
But, he said, the university will have a larger incoming class and will keep more of the students it currently has next year.
"We will have a higher persistence and enrollment rate," Bodnar continued. "We’ve already seen that. We saw a 2% increase in our persistence rate from fall to spring this year.”
Bodnar said that while enrollment is important, it’s not the only thing that matters.
“We want to have a financially sustainable university, and we’re on a path to do that,” he said.
Engen touted the city’s efforts to reduce both homelessness and greenhouse gas emissions, saying work has been done to build affordable housing and alter the city’s transportation systems.
He also said that a gift by local businessman Terry Payne and his wife earlier this month of an entire downtown city block to the city will allow the city to perhaps build affordable housing.
He also said the city is looking at repurposing a 90,000-square-foot federal building downtown and turning it into city offices.
“We believe we can fill it with life and better serve people,” he said. “There is nothing but opportunity in this community, ladies and gentlemen.”