Sale of open space to Elk Foundation 'obscene', says City Council
Missoula City Council members on Wednesday swiped at a suggested sale of open space land to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation as "obscene" and a "backroom deal."
And a city staff member said because the 16 acres at Fort Missoula were purchased with open space bond money, they cannot be sold, leased or exchanged without voter approval.
"It would be obscene to put a building this size in a recreational area," complained council member Lois Herbig. "What would it look like having a Safeway-size building and a warehouse at Fort Missoula?"
"I wish we could communicate clearly to the administration that packaging a backroom deal, then bringing it forward to the public is not the way we should put things together," said councilman Jim McGrath.
The response left officials at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation a bit shell-shocked.
A week ago, the conservation group said it was interested in talking with the city about purchasing a triangle-shaped piece of land on the eastern edge of Fort Missoula - and then building a new national headquarters and visitor center on part of the property.
Fort Missoula's collection of historic buildings, federal land-management agencies, conservation groups and museums is a good fit with the elk foundation, its officers said. And the fort's setting on the Bitterroot River fits well with the elk foundation's conservation values.
"We want our national headquarters to reflect the image and the values of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation," RMEF president and chief executive officer Gary Wolfe said Wednesday. "Our name is synonymous with wildlife and wild places and the West. Our national headquarters should reinforce that image and the principles we stand for."
But City Council members at Wednesday's Conservation Committee meeting questioned any sale of open space land, and members of Save The Fort reminded them that the land was purchased for use as playing fields.
"We promised the public that this land would be used for soccer and softball fields," said Gerard Berens, treasurer of Save The Fort. "The important point here is that you are making one of three decisions: promises honored, promises dishonored or promises changed."
Berens gave council members a chronology showing the city's intent for the Fort Missoula land, which includes not only the 16-acre piece, but also 83 acres on South Avenue. Beginning in August 1997, city officials and Open Space Advisory Committee members repeatedly said the land would be used for "recreational opportunities," "a regional recreational complex," and "playing fields and open space."
Berens said his group will oppose the sale of any portion of the land at Fort Missoula, even if the money were used to buy other land adjacent to the 83 acres. Save The Fort, he said, opposes the sale of public land to private parties. It also opposes any development of the Fort Missoula land for an office building.
"There was never anything on the record about trying to sell that land," said Ron Erickson, Save The Fort's vice president and a former chairman of the Open Space Advisory Committee. "That is not what we promised. We bought that land for recreation."
Kate Supplee, the city's open space program manager, said her opinion about the land's best use changed as city staffers looked at the property and what it would take to develop it as playing fields. The 83 acres is well-suited for softball and soccer fields, she said, but the smaller 16-acre parcel is not the best match for recreational development.
About a year ago, the Open Space Advisory Committee went to Larchmont Golf Course with a proposal for a junior golf course on the triangle. Larchmont declined. Then came the suggestion by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for a 74,000-square-foot office building and visitor center on four acres and open space in the remaining 12 acres.
"This is really, as I see it, a conservation proposal," Supplee said following Wednesday morning's meeting. "The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is one of the largest, most successful conservation organizations in the country. Their presence at the fort would allow for a much greater conservation partnership with the other groups and agencies at the fort."
Wolfe, at the elk foundation, said his group only wanted to "open a dialogue" with the city when he and others went to Mayor Mike Kadas and said they were looking for land on which to build a new headquarters. The foundation's West Broadway site was too crowded and too commercial, he said.
Kadas told the group about the Open Space Advisory Committee's interest in selling the smaller piece of land at Fort Missoula, Wolfe said. "The thing I really like about Fort Missoula is the setting out there, adjacent to the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service and the other nonprofits. It's the right atmosphere for collaboration and partnerships, something we have built a history of success with."
For his employees, the move to Fort Missoula would be "conducive to a positive and productive work atmosphere," Wolfe said. "It's a wonderful setting out there, and it's the type of destination that members of the elk foundation could feel proud of."
The elk foundation would like to make a presentation to City Council members about its vision for Fort Missoula, Wolfe said, "but the city needs to decide first whether it wants to sell the land. We certainly appreciate the value of open space. That's what wildlife habitat is, open space. If we look just within Missoula, we have contributed $140,000 to $150,000 to the acquisition of Mount Jumbo. In the state of Montana in the last 15 years, I would estimate that we have been involved in the acquisition of at least 50,000 acres of land that has come into public ownership for outdoor recreation and wildlife habitat."
But City Council members were angry Wednesday - about the proposal, about the mayor's suggestion of Fort Missoula as a possible location for the elk foundation, and about the possible sale of open space land.
"I want to say to the administration: Cut it out," said Council member Herbig.
Supplee said the sale would require a public referendum - something no one realized when the elk foundation started talking with city officials. The city's open space ordinance requires voter approval of the sale of any open space land.
Either the City Council or a petition drive can place an open-space sale on the ballot. Then the election must attract 40 percent of the registered voters, and the sale must receive 60 percent approval. The same rule covers the lease of open space land.
The only exception, Supplee said, would be for land that was purchased with the stated intention of later resale.
But Supplee said discussions are "preliminary" and "just getting under way" about any changes at Fort Missoula, and she urged council members to "take three steps back." Council member Lou Ann Crowley advised "taking a deep breath."
Wolfe said his group will wait and see. "We would not start a petition drive to get on the ballot," he said. "If the city decides to sell that property, we will sit down with all the stakeholders and share our vision, and work to develop a plan that would be embraced by the city and by the community."
In the meantime, he said, the elk foundation will look for other possible building sites elsewhere in Missoula.
Would the group consider expanding its search beyond Missoula? "While as CEO, my personal desire is to stay in Missoula and Montana, we are a North American organization with 22 board members from all over the United States and Canada," Wolfe said. "Everybody on our board is excited about the Fort Missoula concept. If we were not able to find another site in Missoula that enthused us as much as Fort Missoula, there are some board members who would encourage us to expand our search outside Missoula and outside Montana."
The elk foundation employs about 147 people, including part-timers, and has 115,000 members and 500 chapters. Long-range plans call for a membership of 500,000 and 1,200 chapters in the United States and Canada.
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