The plans for a significant new development in Missoula’s downtown Riverfront Triangle area keep getting more ambitious.
City officials got a detailed first look Wednesday at conceptual designs for a new $80 million, 10-floor building: seven floors for a Hotel Fox and three floors for private, residential condominiums. There would also be two floors of below-grade parking underneath the hotel.
Plans were also unveiled for a massive 60,000-square foot conference center attached to the hotel, with views of the river and a new public park.
It’s a project that developers, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and Mayor John Engen say will transform a currently forlorn and empty spot next to the river and provide an economic boost to not only downtown but to many other hotels and businesses in town.
The entire project is proposed to eventually include both market-rate and low-income housing, retail spaces, restaurants, medical office buildings and a new public plaza with artwork and outdoor seating.
Wednesday’s meeting focused solely on the hotel and conference center portion of the project.
“The conference center won’t just house 100,000 new visitors every year,” explained Jeff Crouch of CTA Architects in Missoula as he showed off new designs. “It will be a catalyst for ensuring Missoula’s next fifty years of growth enhances rather than detracts from the things we cherish about our community. The location and design of the Hotel Fox and Conference Center allow Missoula to stay true to our uniquely Montana character.”
He said it will reinforce Missoula’s already vibrant and diverse downtown and will be designed so that the Clark Fork River is the most important element. Missoula’s downtown in the past didn't embrace the river.
“It will have lots of outdoor seating to celebrate the river and parks and plazas,” Crouch continued. “There’ll be a glass-enclosed pool building with a fitness spa and an outdoor patio overlooking the river. The conference center has room for 1,000 people to sit down for dinner. They’ll have the flexibility to (divide the) room… so that a summer wedding and a large fundraiser can be held on the same evening. Flexibility is the key.”
The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board of commissioners voted unanimously to approve the concept for the conference center and parking facility development agreement, a lease/management agreement and a buy/sell agreement to sell the land to the developers, Hotel Fox Partners, for $2.3 million.
Under the terms of the agreement, which still has to be approved by the City Council, Hotel Fox Partners will build a 195-room hotel with associated restaurants, bars and a coffee shop on the spot where a parking lot now sits at the corner of West Front St. and Orange Street. They would also build the three floors of condos on top of the hotel.
Hotel Fox Partners includes the same developers who are building the new student housing complex on Front Street. They are not affiliated with a national hotel chain but management of the hotel could eventually be handled by a third party.
Attached to the hotel, the developers will construct a conference center that includes a “grand hall” that is able to seat 1,000 people but is also able to be divided into somewhat smaller event or meeting rooms. The intent is to make the conference center competitive with other cities in the region in attracting large group gatherings.
The hotel next door would not be able to accommodate all the guests for the largest events, so other hotels and rentals in the city would benefit from the spillover. The developers will also build a two-level, 405-space parking garage under the hotel that will include some private spaces but mostly public spots.
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The city would purchase the conference center using Tax Increment Financing Bonds. The city will pay the developers either the cost of construction or the amount the city thinks it can pay using Tax Increment Financing, which is the amount of new property tax generated by the project. The developers have estimated that they can build the conference center for $16.5 million.
The city also would purchase the public and lease portions of the parking facility for either $8.28 million or the actual cost of constructing the facility, whichever is less. The facility would be paid for by Parking Facility Bonds that would be paid back from net parking revenues and perhaps tax increment revenues.
The entire site is within the Front Street Urban Renewal District, so developers are eligible to qualify for TIF assistance, meaning they get reimbursed for the additional property tax their project generates for portions of the project that benefit the public.
“Basically, the city would be rolling future property taxes from the project back into the project and buying a conference center with the money,” explained MRA assistant director Chris Behan.
“This is not being paid for by a mill levy or out of the city’s general fund,” explained Ruth Reineking, an MRA board member. “This district and this development is paying for this.”
The city would then lease the conference center to the hotel or its assigned manager, and the hotel would assume responsibility for all maintenance, repair and replacement responsibilities of furniture, fixtures and equipment as well as structural and HVAC systems.
“We think this is a project that will benefit not only the people in this room, but also the entire community,” said developer Jim McLeod with Hotel Fox Partners.
The size and scope of the project has basically doubled since January of 2017, when the city was planning on purchasing 29,000 square feet of conference center for a purchase price of the lesser of $6.25 million or the actual cost of construction.
Dan Semmens of Dorsey & Whitney has been hired by the city to serve as a legal counsel on the agreements.
He said the city’s goal is to “fulfill this large public purpose of bringing large events and stimulating the economy and providing opportunities for a lot of folks in downtown Missoula.”
Behan acknowledged that convention centers are not known for being “cash cows” by themselves, because it’s hard to generate a profit as a standalone unit. However, he said, the economic boost they provide to the surrounding community is huge because all those people have to stay in other hotels, eat at local restaurants and shop at other businesses. He also said city taxpayers might get a boost from additional development that is created as a result of the project.
“The thought is this major development would spur other development in the area,” he said.
Developers have said the entire project could cost as much as $150 million and would be the second-largest urban infill project in Montana history, behind only the Old Sawmill District redevelopment across the river.