Questions Persist Amidst Uncertainty Over Missoula Event Center Project

by William Skink

I’ve been doing some research this morning on Missoula’s odyssey to develop the Fox Theater site downtown, and while it might have made sense a few months ago to build a regional event center in Missoula, a few months ago we lived in a different world.

I’m trying to better understand the timeline of this 16 year effort to develop this prime parcel downtown. A Missoulian article from 2015 pegs 2004 as the year interest first developed. Here’s a brief summary from the article (written by Gomer Kidston during his Missoulian days):

The idea of building a performing arts center was first presented in 2004 when a committee that included Valeo submitted its plan to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

The proposal suggested that Missoula’s existing facilities have stage constraints and limited support space. The Dennison Theatre is often booked with UM functions. A new community facility, they said, could help bring touring arts to Missoula.

MRA backed the committee’s proposal by reserving a portion of the Riverfront Triangle at Orange and Front streets for 30 months to give the center’s advocates a chance to finish design work and find the financing.

But by 2007, even with the design in hand, the effort remained a long shot, and by 2010 it was dead. In 2011, MRA gave Hotel Fox LLC exclusive rights to the Riverfront Triangle to build a hotel and convention center.

The performance center supposedly died because there was no big angel investor driving the project. The article continues:

While discussions continue softly on the city’s artsy back channels, no single leader has stepped forward to push the performing arts center forward. Valeo believes fragmentation continues to stand as the arts community’s biggest challenge.

“These big ideas suffer more because people get some broad idea to proceed with something without talking to an existing group that’s working on something and getting others to buy into it,” he said. “It’s fragmentation. There has to be some leadership from somewhere.”

Four years earlier that leadership had already arrived. Nick Checota established Stonefly Capital, LLC on June 8th, 2011. Stonefly Capital is the legal entity that holds the ownership of Checota’s venue empire, which includes The Wilma, The Top Hat and the Kettlehouse Amphitheater.

While those venues were getting the Checota makeover, Missoula was doing what it does best: paying consulting firms to study and produce agreeable data backing up whatever scheme the Engen regime is planning.

Here’s how a Missoula Current article from last year put it:

A study conducted by the national planning firm Conventions Sports and Leisure in 2015 estimated that a Missoula conference center alone would bring $14 million in direct economic impact to the community each year.

The city believes the events space will increase that figure, boosting local businesses.

“The new facility will create a cultural civic center for the Missoula community, as well as serve as a destination venue for a broader regional audience,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “There’s no other facility in the region that can successfully accommodate this range of events. It will continue to expand Missoula’s growing reputation as a cultural hub in the Northwest.”

After this 2015 study, Missoula’s effort to acquire the Water Company took center stage and dragged on for years. Our Mayor, an admitted alcoholic who was NOT in recovery back then, told Missoula citizens the legal costs would be between $400,000-$800,000 dollars.

At the time of this article (June, 2019) the legal cost was 13 million and STILL growing, as lingering legal disputes continue to crawl through the courts.

Mayor Engen’s alcoholism reached a crisis point near the end of 2016, when he disappeared for in-patient treatment, only coming clean to his constituents AFTER completing treatment that he suffers from alcoholism.

The Mayor’s announcement of his disease doubled as an announcement of his reelection campaign, and the following year Engen was reelected to another term.

Since winning reelection, the unaffordable housing situation has worsened, the University of Montana is still one of the worst performing flagships in the country, homelessness has worsened (despite PR efforts to convince us otherwise), and now a global pandemic has upended the long shift from a resource extraction economy to a service-sector tourist economy in just a few short months.

In this NEW NORMAL of social distancing, who really thinks a 100 million dollar event center is going to be a viable project any time soon? How much more time is the city going to give Nick Checota? Will MRA still pledge 16.5 million in public money? How is the city going to deal with the inevitable budget shortfalls that are coming?

There are many unanswered questions that the public deserve answers to, considering the public is the piggy bank our illuminated leaders like to squeeze when they need more money for schools and parks and police officers and art parks and bridges and electric buses and water companies.

Engen is up for reelection in 2021. Who is going to challenge our drunken sailor Mayor? I would vote for the Paddlehead Moose mascot at this point.

I hope someone with a bit more self-control throws their hat into the ring. I know it’s a political cliche to say this, but we really can’t afford four more years of Engen.

Pay attention, Missoula, and, next year, vote accordingly.

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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1 Response to Questions Persist Amidst Uncertainty Over Missoula Event Center Project

  1. Want a project?

    Look into all the various studies the city and county and MRA have commissioned over the past half decade or so. Figure out the companies they hire to do the studies. Figure out the main people working for those companies. Compare them to the names of the people donating to the mayor’s election campaigns. Compare them to the people donating to the various PACs controlled by Campaign Compliance and other fundraising outfits.

    Follow the money.

    It’s hard. Most of this stuff is well-hidden in various city and MRA reports, and the media doesn’t do a very good job keeping a master list of all these studies over the years.

    Here are a few examples if you wanted to get started:

    In December 2013 the MRA gave $20,000 to Community Development Services of Montana, based in Butte, to do a study on blight to figure out which areas could be redeveloped.

    The Brooks Street study was done in 2017 for $165,000. “Community organizations” funded that, but another $30,000 study will be needed to determine feasibility (don’t ask me why the first study can’t do that).

    In February of this year, $25,000 was given to Dover, Kohl and Partners to do a study to determine what to do with the old library location. You’ve done homework on that Florida outfit before, I believe.

    Also in February, the city wanted to study quiet zones around train yards. Here’s what NBC Montana said: “In order get a quiet zone approved, the city needs to study the area to asses [sic] potential safety risks of getting rid of the whistles. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency is funding the study.”

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