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City planning for arts center

City planning for arts center

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The city is laying the groundwork for the Missoula Community Performing Arts Center to land at the Riverfront Triangle should the nonprofit attract enough multimillion-dollar donations to build a cultural center.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency is moving fast to place the property in an urban renewal district, MRA director Ellen Buchanan said Wednesday to the Missoula City Council administration and finance committee. Also, the city soon plans to issue a request for proposals.

Mayor John Engen said several parties that favor the arts group have expressed interest in buying either one or both parcels since the city appraised its property on the northern banks of the Clark Fork River.

"That was sort of catalytic," Engen said of the appraisal. "And I hope this (request for proposals) is another catalytic event. This is all about getting people moving."

An urban renewal district is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Buchanan said if the project is planned for an urban renewal area, the city requires it provide parking. And members of the public have said they don't want a parking garage on the river, said the MRA's Chris Behan.

That means building an underground parking lot, which Buchanan said doesn't pencil out for a developer. And that's where the urban renewal district comes into the picture.

Placing the property inside such a district means a developer can use tax increment dollars to help pay for parking. The idea is the public supports the project, and in turn, it benefits from more parking spaces downtown, Behan said.

MRA staff plan to present a draft urban renewal plan to the MRA board next week. Buchanan said she expects a request for proposals to be issued sometime in early July.

An appraisal of the tracts released in March elicited a flurry of interest in the land, officials said.

The southeastern part of the triangle, which would accommodate a performing arts center, came in at nearly $2 million. The adjacent southwestern site came in at $1.36 million. The two sites together came in at $2.7 million, which is less than the total, but Engen said it's typical that splitting the sites increases their value.

Engen said a patron of the Missoula Community Performing Arts Center would like to meet with him about buying both parcels. He also said he would like the performing arts center to be part of the request for proposals.

"If the performing arts center patron is truly interested in the parcel, this is an opportunity to formally respond to that and for us to offer that fairly," Engen said.

He said the developers of the Old Sawmill District remain interested in the property. A hotel developer also has talked with the city, but hotel developers have come and gone over the years.

The arts center is planned to be a $60 million cultural center, one of the most ambitious projects attempted in Missoula.

As planned, it relies on public money, with voter approval, but also on private donations to the tune of $5 million to $10 million each. Since the group presented the idea to the public, the economy has slipped.

Board secretary Jim Valeo, however, said the economic downturn is isolated. He also said the philanthropists whom the board is soliciting have deep pockets that can weather the current market.

The group has raised $500,000 so far and has consistent conversations with four families capable of giving $5 million to $10 million each, Valeo said.

In the past, members of the Missoula City Council have said they doubt the board can raise enough money to build the cultural center. The private sector, however, appears to be responding more favorably.

Amy Rue, executive director of the Missoula Community Performing Arts Center, said various groups agree the center is a viable option that impacts economic development downtown.

"It's a great feeling," Rue said.

In recent correspondence, both the Downtown Business Improvement board of directors and the MRA board urge Mayor Engen and the Missoula City Council to allow a downtown master plan to develop before taking action on the performing arts center.

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