University of Montana President Royce Engstrom made the decision last week to build the new Missoula College on East Broadway.
More than anything, the announcement came as a relief. At last Missoula can get past the stale arguments that have held up this vital project for almost 10 years – and move on to all new ones.
That’s only half a joke. In truth, the East Broadway site likely isn’t anyone’s first choice, but it satisfies the college’s most important needs while avoiding a likely lawsuit from opponents of UM’s original South Campus location.
However, it comes with its own set of challenges – challenges that the college will overcome all the faster if the larger Missoula community pitches in to help resolve them in a timely manner.
Within sight of Washington-Grizzly Stadium just across the Clark Fork River, the new Missoula College building will bring more than 2,000 students to a new part of town on a regular basis. The East Broadway area will undergo a sea change.
In what ways will transportation and traffic be affected? How about commerce? What will residents who live near the proposed college experience? Will the location of the new building drive up demand for student housing in surrounding neighborhoods?
These questions and more will be studied in depth as UM proceeds with its plans to build the new college. The Legislature set aside $29 million to build the college, but it’s likely that costs will rise the longer it takes to complete the project.
Fortunately, one of the strengths of the East Broadway spot is that it comes already equipped with infrastructure – water, electricity, etc. – that would have cost more money and time if they had to be installed new.
Still, construction probably won’t begin until next year, when the university expects to have completed further studies, such as an environmental assessment. It also has to hire an architect to create a new design for the building, but another of the East Broadway location’s strengths, Engstrom explained, is that is “gives architects a little more flexibility.”
Flexibility has been sorely missing in the past several years of debate over the college’s location. While the South Campus was Engstrom’s preferred location for the new college, a loosely organized group called Advocates for Missoula’s Future steadfastly opposed it, arguing instead that university land at Fort Missoula was the best option. UM leaders, however, flat-out rejected Fort Missoula for a variety of reasons.
Those reasons were never deemed satisfactory to Advocates for Missoula’s Future, which announced in May its intention to bring a lawsuit against the university if plans to develop the South Campus – particularly the university golf course – went forward.
Also in May, Engstrom offered the East Broadway site as an alternative.
Some members of the Advocates group voiced opposition to this location too, maintaining that Fort Missoula is still the best site. Meanwhile, the Associated Students of the University of Montana endorsed the South Campus. And Missoula Mayor Jon Engen, along with several members of City Council, unhelpfully suggested that UM consider yet another option – buying the former Fox Theater site downtown. That idea was, not surprisingly, rebuffed.
Now, thankfully, it appears that ASUM, Advocates and Engen are all on board with the East Broadway plan. In fact, Engen restated his intention to continue exploring downtown options for student housing. The mayor of Missoula and the president of the University of Montana have been working on a plan to identify 1,000 new units of student housing by the end of 2014. Now that a firm location for Missoula College has been decided, perhaps that project will receive a little more momentum.
A new Missoula College will attract more two-year students, train them for good-paying jobs and provide a much-needed economic boost to the local economy. It will expand on the skills available within the local workforce to the benefit of employers and employees alike.
Missoula ought to have been clamoring for new, state-of-the-art facilities designed to better train this emerging work force. Instead, we have wasted years arguing over the location of Missoula College. Let’s not allow any further delay.
EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen