By Martin Kidston
An empty downtown parking lot could see construction of a new hotel and conference center begin as early next year, so long as a handful of development agreements come together as planned, one of the project’s leaders said this week.
Jim McLeod, senior managing director at Farran Realty Partners, said Hotel Fox Partners continues to work with a number of entities, including the city of Missoula and a national parking consultant, to finalize a handful of development agreements related to the project.
Once finalized, the agreements would clear the way for the $150 million redevelopment of the Riverfront Triangle in downtown Missoula to begin in the first half of 2017.
“You have the overall development agreement and you have a bunch of sub-agreements that fall out of that,” McLeod said this week. “There are four big ones we’re focused on that tie back in. We’ve worked with the Riverfront Triangle Working Group, and I think we’re all on the same page.”
McLeod said the subcontracts include issues related to land acquisition, tax increment financing, subsidies for the conference center and an agreement with the Missoula Parking Commission. Hotel Fox Partners are also working with the parking consultant Kimly-Horn and Associates to evaluate revenue streams and parking access.
McLeod said he expects something back from the consultants any day. The information will help identify ways to tailor a pending agreement with the city around the use and management of the conference center. The team is also working with the Missoula Parking Commission on a potential parking agreement.
“The project includes the hotel, the conference center, commercial space and residential, and we have to work with the Parking Commission to sort it all out,” McLeod said. “Parking drives this whole project. Without parking, you’re not going to be able to do this type of project with the density that’s required. It’s a complicated deal, but we’ve made some great strides.”
McLeod said the team will get before the working group again this month before presenting to the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Board of Directors. He said the project was moving in the right direction.
“I’d say we’re very confident,” McLeod said. “We’ll be seeing the project go forward with groundbreaking some time in the first or second quarter of 2017.”
Earlier this week, Ellen Buchanan, executive director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, briefed members of the Missoula Downtown Association on the project’s grand vision.
The city granted Hotel Fox Partners exclusive rights to develop the property in 2011. The plan has grown over time to include a 200-room hotel and large conference center capable of drawing regional events.
The $150 million infill project would span seven acres and include housing, retail and office space, with a portion of it dedicated to medical use. If successful, the development could infuse the city with an estimated $32 million in new visitor spending.
“They had some people with a bigger vision, and they’re taking on the entire triangle as a master development, which is the way it should be done,” Buchanan said. “We’re close enough now that we’re actually hammering out development agreements.”
The downtown property once represented a complicated blend of owners and zoning overlays. The developers negotiated a purchase agreement with Providence St. Patrick Hospital, and bought the commercial property at the corner of Orange and Broadway.
Over the past year, the city has also worked with the developers to rezone the area to simplify future phases of the project. Initially, the developers had proposed a multi-year build out, though they’ve said more recently it could happen more quickly.
“When the hotel developers brought their proposal to us, they were looking at a 200-room hotel with minimal meeting space,” said Buchanan. “We challenged them to see if there was a way to build a real conference space. We’re losing out on a lot of conferences in this region because we don’t have a facility.”
The city hired Conventions, Sports and Leisure International last year to conduct a conference center feasibility study. The study found that Missoula could sustain a moderate 30,000-square-foot facility, so long as it included abundant break-out space.
A conference center of that size could generate $16 million in new economic output for the city and its businesses, the study suggested.
“They came up with three scenarios in terms of different sizes for a conference center,” Buchanan said. “We’re moving forward with the middle one, which is a conference center with about 25,000 square feet of leaseable space.”
Buchanan said the development will also include a mix of residential units, including affordable housing, market-rate housing and high-end housing.
“They’ll be retail, too, and there’s two sites there for restaurants out on the river,” Buchanan said. “We’ll see public plazas and an enhanced riverfront trail, and another foot bridge over the river.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org