A 2,500-square-foot tropical butterfly house, an educational public kitchen and 2.5 acres of fruit and vegetable demonstration gardens are coming to the Missoula County Fairgrounds sometime in 2021.
The nonprofit Missoula Insectarium is propelling its already robust partnership with the Missoula County Extension and Weed District, and the two organizations are joining forces on what could be a $10 million new facility. It will be located on the far northeast corner of the fairgrounds, which is undergoing a major redevelopment over the next few years.
“If all goes well we hope ground will be broken by about this time next year,” said Glenn Marangelo, the development and community relations director at the Missoula Insectarium. “We’re over the moon. This is the vision we’ve been working on for a long time and we’re excited.”
Marangelo said the new butterfly house will be a “total immersion tropical experience.”
“That’s the biggest, most exciting change,” he said. “And with the larger exhibit areas, we can double what we have now, so we’ll have a lot more species on exhibit. We’re already starting to plan what some of those things will be.”
The insectarium currently houses live insects and arthropods like walking stick bugs, whip scorpions and honey bees in its facility on Front Street, but its lease runs out in August. So, until the new building is built, it'll be doing educational classes at other organizations and will have a small exhibit at the Montana Natural History Center.
Jerry Marks, the longtime department head of the extension and weed district, said building a new facility has been a “dream” of his for a long time.
“It will bring a concept of a learning center, an exploratorium, a demonstration garden and demonstration kitchen,” he said. “People will be learning new things. It will be a new highlight to Missoula.”
Marks said he estimates the new facility will bring roughly 40,000 people a year to the fairgrounds.
It will include a master gardener’s lab along with the 2.5 acres outside for an educational garden.
“There’s a tremendous amount of interest in locally grown foods,” Marks explained. “We get a lot of questions on more current fruits and vegetables for gardens. So in collaboration with the Western Montana Agricultural Research Center and other states and Canada, we’re exploring new fruit and vegetable varieties. This will give us a chance to put it in front of the public so they can decide if they want it in their yard or garden or whatever.”
The new building will allow the offices staff horticulturist, as well as a family and consumer science educator, to give classes on gardening, wildflowers, plants, nutrition enhancement and sustainable pest management.
“We have a lot of folks asking questions and wanting a more holistic approach, a more sustainable approach, to pest management,” Marks explained. “They want to know what alternatives there are. Our staff person works with a number of volunteers who have a better knowledge of when people need to treat or what they don’t need to treat. This will enhance our ability to work with the public.”
At the demonstration kitchen, people will be able to learn how to freeze and can and prepare the fruits and vegetables they grow, he said. The office also works on invasive species and noxious weeds.
Marks said he estimates the new building could cost as much as $10 million when "all is said and done" but it's still in the design phase right now. Marangelo said his organization is formalizing the process on an "exact dollar goal" for fundraising efforts and may launch the silent phase of a capital campaign soon.
Marangelo said that since the Missoula Insectarium opened in 2015, they've had a partnership with Marks' office to educate people on pollinators and insect bio-control.
"We were faced with a situation where our existing lease ends in August and the landlord is not willing to renew," he explained. "As we've been growing, we always wanted to take growth steps forward and not do something that's a lateral move."
Both organizations seemed ready to take a big leap, and they decided to see if a partnership could be formed.
"And the Extension and Weed District, they've been planning on moving out and that was kind of coming to a head and they graciously said, 'Hey, let's combine forces' and let's build a building out there that's going to be incredible and strengthen what we're both offering and intermingling," Marangelo explained.
"It's a great opportunity to strengthen what we're both already doing together," he continued. "All the things they offer in terms of range management, agriculture, weeds and gardening —insects play a role in everything. And we can kind of bring more of those pieces together and really become a one-stop destination for great education."
Marangelo said people don't often think about insects and arthropods, but Montana is home to a great number of them that are both fascinating and important. Children and adults alike are astounded when they come through the doors.
"It really opens your eyes to a different world," he said.
Emily Brock, the fairgrounds director, said the new facility will fit in perfectly with the fairgrounds' plans to rehab historic buildings and add new facilities and amenities.
"I love the idea of a school group coming to the Insectarium and eating lunch at the historic plaza and appreciating the green sort of oasis that we're going to be creating," she said. "It will take them back in time for an afternoon."
"It fits in perfectly with our mission in terms of the education piece and the agriculture piece," she said. "You know, insects are really important pollinators. They are critical to agriculture. It also aligns wonderfully with the weed district's mission to keep working landscapes pristine and keep out noxious weeds."
Marangelo said for the next couple years, the Insectarium won't have a physical address but it will still maintain its presence.
"There will be a stretch of two years or so where we're not replicating exactly what we have right now," he said. "Instead of bringing classrooms to us, now we'll be heading into classrooms. There's a lot of opportunities to keep the program and presence strong."