The Financial Recklessness Of The Engen Survey Regime And The Mayor’s Obsession To Build An Event Center

by William Skink

Mayor Engen’s survey regime is out of control. I wrote a post just three days ago about a survey to study Missoula County residents, and now there’s this report about a some “ambitious”, endless examination of the Brooks Street Corridor. The $30,000 dollar “retainer” is just the beginning of this newest financial sinkhole the city is opening up. From the link:

An ambitious plan to transform Brooks Street into a corridor suited for all forms of transportation could result in a center-running transit lane with 15 minute service and unlock new opportunities for housing and economic development.

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Commissions on Thursday approved a $30,000 retainer fee to allow HDR Engineering to further examine the feasibility of the current proposal. As part of the contract, it will engage MDT as a partner and determine what right of way will be needed to accommodate a Bus Rapid Transit system, which other cities have adopted.

While we are on the cusp of a literal financial depression, Engen’s MRA is stuck in the old normal. They are operating like the economy is continuing its growth, not contracting after a decade of central bank shenanigans.

The old normal, where our illuminated brain trust thought spending 16.5 million in public money to help Lord Checota build his Big D(rift) was a good idea, is not dislodging from the minds of our gleeful gentrifiers. That is evidenced by this Missoula Current puff piece on the status of the event center. Since Checota is suddenly not available to the media, Engen sycophant Chris Behan had to step in and comment:

“He’s more open than he was a month ago, but he’s still trying to figure things out,” said Chris Behan, the assistant MRA director. “There will be a time when he needs to make some decisions on whether we should extend that November deadline.”

Last May, the city approved a 12-month extension to its original development agreement with Hotel Fox Partners, which owned the property before transferring the development rights to Clark Fork Riverfront Properties.

MRA commissioners urged patience amid the current uncertainty.

“I think our greatest avenue of support is to give that development group time for things to stabilize and be patient with them as they process through the ramifications of this and be optimistic,” said MRA Commissioner Tasha Jones.

“Our support is still there,” added Commissioner Melanie Brock. “I look forward to an update when the time is right.”

Yes, the support of MRA is still there and has been for nearly a decade as extension after extension gets granted to give this massive development project more and more time to get their shit together. The pandemic is just the latest, and most significant barrier this project has faced.

For some history on the development of this site, here is some information from a MRA generated “background paper“:

At its December 5, 2011 meeting, the City Council granted the Hotel Fox, LLC a one year exclusive right to negotiate a development agreement for the City-owned Fox Site at the corner of Orange and Front Streets in the Riverfront Triangle Urban Renewal District. Several weeks later, an Interim Agreement between Hotel Fox and MRA was executed which includes outcomes, schedules and responsibilities that the City Council and MRA Board indicated were important. Recognizing Hotel Fox’s substantial progress and major expansion of the project and conference center (pursuant to a request by Mayor Engen), on January 14, 2013 and again on January 13, 2014, the City Council extended the term of the Agreement by one year. On June 8, 2015, the Council approved another extension (until 2017) with the understanding that a series of new tasks would be undertaken by the developer.

As mentioned above, the developer’s planning efforts expanded by finding the owner of several acres of adjacent land would discuss selling for a larger development. The size of the proposed conference center plan more than doubled when Mayor Engen asked Hotel Fox to explore the feasibility and site location of a much larger conference and meeting center in conjunction with the hotel development. The Mayor’s goal for the larger conference center was to augment other local hotel businesses and create a significant new source of economic energy in the downtown and the community.

To continue depicting this event center as a viable project, everything we are being told about the dangers of Covid-19 has to be ignored. Just some dudes hanging out in Ravalli County has resulted in a cluster of infections, we are told. And the expectation of a second wave is widely acknowledged, so who expects anything definitive about this project to be known by the November deadline?

Mayor Engen demanded an increase in the scope of this development project, and he has supported each and every extension, and, come November, Mayor Engen and his sycophants at MRA will grant another extension to keep the irrational hope for this project alive, just like the Federal Reserve has kept zombie banks trudging along for over a decade.

While MRA waits breathlessly for a positive sign from their Lord, we are still counting jobless claims in the millions. 2.4 million people filed for unemployment JUST LAST WEEK, bringing the official number to 38.6 million. The unofficial number is certainly much higher.

In what world does it make sense to continue a project that will suck 16.5 million dollars in public money out of MRA? With all the uncertainty over the municipal budget, that money needs to be saved to backstop the looming deficit sure to emerge as businesses don’t come back and rent doesn’t get paid, dropping tax revenue.

The Mayor used MRA money exactly in this manner when it came to protecting his job. If he doesn’t understand the dire financial situation this city is facing, and continues promoting a project that requires NO SOCIAL DISTANCING to be financial viable, then he is clearly not fit to continue the duties of his position.

This decades long obsession to plop a giant event center at the Fox Theater site needs to end.

I hope you’re paying attention, Missoula.


About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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3 Responses to The Financial Recklessness Of The Engen Survey Regime And The Mayor’s Obsession To Build An Event Center

  1. JC says:

    The history of the Fox site and a performing arts center goes back even further. In the late 2000s, a nonprofit organization had a plan to build a $60 million facility that would have been funded by $40 million in private donations, and once that was secured, the County was going to put the remaining $20 million to a vote for a bond. You know, let the people have a voice in how their taxes were going to be spent.

    The proposal for development by the nonprofit was eventually dropped as the city/county powers that be didn’t see them moving fast enough to raise the private money needed to get to a public vote. And all of this in the face of the looming Great Recession.

    Amazing how just a decade can change things — private developers throwing hundreds of millions around to bilk the city out of $16 million without any public vote on how to utilize or spend public resources.

    The nonprofit proposal was truly going to be a public benefit, letting the city/county school districts make full use of the performance facility, the Missoula Symphony and Children’s Theater could use it, and a whole host of other benefits.

    But no, we need a conference center, hotels and condos, and a bunch of smoke filled back rooms and bags of cash exchanging hands…

  2. Djinn&Tonic says:

    Excellent info JC, also didn’t know this and I’ve been here for 26 years.

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