Change is afoot on East Broadway.
Missoula College will be built there, for one thing. Plus, Eastgate Shopping Center recently changed ownership, a national restaurant is looking at the old Finnegan’s building, and other “key properties” are on the market, according to city officials and a commercial real estate agent.
All the activity has the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and Mayor John Engen eager to jump-start projects in the wings. Last week, the Missoula City Council heard a proposal to research creation of a tax increment district after a brainstorming session by the mayor and MRA board.
“This is among the gateways to Missoula, and with some new property owners, a recovering economy and the relocation of Missoula College, an urban renewal district brings resources that can ensure quality redevelopment is happening as downtown Missoula extends,” Engen said.
Support for the district isn’t universal, but enthusiasm for development that benefits the northeastern edge of Missoula is strong.
Kim Latrielle, president of the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce, said it’s been a long time since East Broadway has seen an update, and the college students and tax district could give a boost to businesses.
“It’s just a wonderful opportunity to do some neat things to support that change, and our neighborhood, I think, needs it,” Latrielle said.
Bill McQuirk, a commercial real estate agent with Lambros ERA, said the area has grown “a little tired,” but this year developers are laying groundwork for future projects. He said they anticipate revving into action sometime in the middle of 2014.
“Everybody is really excited,” McQuirk said. “I’m working with some really good companies that’d be a real good plus factor for this town as far as good jobs and good tax base.”
For instance, he said a private company that builds student housing is investigating the stretch of East Broadway from Madison Avenue to Van Buren Street as a possible site. And a national chain is looking at a restaurant in the old Finnegan’s building.
Recently, the city completed a bicycle and pedestrian trail, RUX, that runs from the end of Pine Street to Van Buren behind the businesses on the north side of East Broadway. Engen, MRA director Ellen Buchanan, and Latrielle said one opportunity they plan to discuss with the new Eastgate owner is how to connect RUX with the riverfront and extend the trail on the north side of the Clark Fork Trail.
“I can’t believe the new purchasers of Eastgate bought it just to collect rent from Ace and Mountain Hardware,” Buchanan said.
These days, she said, developers create businesses that take advantage of riverfront views, and she wouldn’t be surprised to see Eastgate orient itself to the Clark Fork River. A riverfront trail could push through to Missoula College as well.
Already, Go Fetch has opened across from Eastgate, and the Silvertip Apartments opened farther east on the river with 115 units. The old Broadway Market building is for sale on Madison Avenue, as are other “key properties,” Buchanan said.
“There are a number of uses that we think will transition in the near term as a result of the college locating there,” she said.
An events center has been discussed for a long time, and new information indicates it might fit in the East Broadway area, too, Latrielle said. One of the hurdles has been the amount of land needed, she said.
However, Latrielle said a developer recently showed some people from Missoula a center in Boise that was built on just 2 acres. The arena had 6,000 seats along with hotel rooms and parking spaces, and it has operated successfully for 15 years, she said.
“It changes the whole possibility of where that thing can go,” said Latrielle, who hasn’t dismissed putting the center in other parts of Missoula.
On Monday at its regular meeting, council members will vote on whether to study the East Broadway area to see if it’s eligible to be a tax increment district. If the study determines the district is warranted, the council and MRA board will vote on whether to create it, likely within six months.
Basically, districts are a redevelopment tool that freeze the tax base in eligible areas for a period of time and then invest any tax dollars above and beyond that baseline — the “increment” — right back into the district. The idea is developers can tap those dollars for parts of their project that qualify, and in turn, the city gets a hand in guiding the way an area develops. Once the district expires, the notion is that even more money flows into government coffers.
Last week in committee, council members voted to recommend the full council approve the study. In a brief discussion, they also shared ideas and reservations about creating the district, proposed to run from the railroad tracks to the river, and east from Madison Street to a point the study will determine.
Councilwoman Caitlin Copple said the proposed district has frontage on Interstate 90, the “backbone of the Internet.” She would like to ensure “fiber to the premises” is part of any plan for redeveloping the district.
“If there’s anything that the city can do to make sure that that happens or make sure that’s studied and included in the plan — kind of front and center — I think that would be really appropriate,” Copple said.
On the other hand, councilors Bob Jaffe and Adam Hertz expressed reservations about a district, but for different reasons. Both, however, supported the initial study.
Hertz said he has some apprehension about creating a district in the East Broadway area — although he likes the idea of another district study on the table for North Reserve. His reservation with East Broadway is that projects might not need the MRA’s support to pop up.
“I feel like the Missoula College there will probably be enough of a draw to spur some development on its own, but I think it’s worth studying,” Hertz said.
Councilman Jaffe’s concern was that if the city puts resources in the East Broadway corridor, it might pull projects away from the downtown area. He sees the area needs help and is “kind of a mess,” but he doesn’t want to spread resources in a way that hurts the core of Missoula.
“In some ways, it is the downtown, but in other ways, it’s not,” Jaffe said of East Broadway. “And it’s essentially following the lead of Missoula College to start redirecting our energies outside downtown, and I have some apprehension about that.”
The Chamber’s Latrielle said she plans to visit with business owners up and down the corridor about the possible district and the ways they could tap into the benefits. She wants to be certain all the landowners understand the proposal.
“If maybe people haven’t been able to accomplish their dreams or do something they wanted, maybe this is the time,” Latrielle said.
At least a couple business owners already are pleased the future will bring more students and business to the area. Thelma Baker, with the Thunderbird Motel, said the stretch has excellent fast food restaurants, a great grocery store, Albertsons, and a new “little doggy store,” Go Fetch, and she’s hoping a sit-down, family restaurant similar to Finnegan’s will open soon.
“I’m very excited about the College of Technology going in down the street,” Baker said. “I think it’s a great location for them.”
Frank Tabish, president of GW Petroleum, said new development might even benefit his employees. Putting Missoula College on East Broadway will be a plus for the neighborhood, he said, and he hopes it means his employees won’t have to be afraid when they leave work.
“Maybe that’ll flush all the transients out of here,” Tabish said. “We have been plagued with transients at this end of town, and it’s getting better now because the police have been better now. But it got to a point where our gals were afraid to go to their cars at night. That’s how bad it got.”
Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (406) 523-5262.