City not sold on Metro Express Car Wash plans for hotel property

A Boise-based developer is looking to raze the Howard Johnson Inn off Brooks Street and replace it with the largest car wash in the city. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

A developer has applied to raze the Howard Johnson Inn on Brooks Street and replace it with a Metro Express Car Wash wash with three stacking lanes and 25 vacuum stalls – the largest car wash in the city.

While the project is permitted under the city’s new growth policy, it wasn’t a hit with all members of the City Council’s Land Use and Planning Committee, including those working to achieve a broader community vision for the Brooks Street corridor.

“The car wash looks fabulous, but what I’d hope when we start doing developments in areas like this is that we’re not looking at just single-use development,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “It’s a direction we’ve tried to move away from along the Brooks corridor.”

Over the past few years, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency has invested millions of dollars in tax increment financing to diversify the corridor’s uses and move it away from its current dependence on the automobile.

While the process has been slow, several current projects – along with others planned for the district – are moving that vision forward, one that includes mixed-use retail and housing built around neighborhood hubs. A new plan looks to expedite that transition.

“There have been years and years of planning for the Brooks corridor,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “There have been many layers of planning and the Midtown layer is coming to fruition, so this is really a big issue. If you’re trying to steer the ship a few degrees in a certain direction, at what point do we start doing that instead of talking about it?”

Developer Ben Martin of WFM Enterprises, based in Boise, described his firm as a family owned business which runs similar car washes in Idaho and Colorado. The project proposed for Brooks is valued at roughly $8.5 million and would, Martin said, provide roughly 12 jobs with a starting wage of $12.50 an hour, plus retirement and benefits.

“We consider ourselves a green business – we recycle all of our water,” said Martin. “We’re interested and eager to be a part of the Missoula community, and we think this project is a good fit. We pride ourselves on long-term employment and good day jobs for our staff.”

Several members of the committee questioned whether a car wash was the highest and best use for the property, particularly given the community’s vision for the corridor. Martin said he looked at other properties around Missoula in other locations, though he was unable to negotiate a purchase.

If the city were to approve the car wash, he added, he would close on the purchase of the Howard Johnson Inn in February and begin construction this summer with plans to open in early 2018. It’s unlikely the project would qualify for tax increment financing.

“Tax increment funding is not an entitlement, it’s a tool we use to get the kind of development we want to see happen, and the type of land uses the city has determined are appropriate for a certain area,” said MRA director Ellen Buchanan.

“There’s been a lot of effort put into this Brooks corridor,” she added. “It’s probably the toughest nut we have to crack in Missoula. We’re starting to see progress, but this is contrary to the patterns we want to encourage.”

Members of Development Services have received letters of opposition from members of the neighborhood, including the Southgate Triangle Neighborhood Council and the Atonement Lutheran Church.

The Metro Express Car Wash would include a 9,600 square foot building, three stacking lanes and 25 vacuum stations.

In a letter to the city, Pastor Daniel Disch said a car wash is not a value-added addition for the Brooks Street corridor. Rather, he said, housing would be a more appropriate use, including assisted-living or senior housing.

“Such a venture is something Atonement, and perhaps First Interstate and Missoula Federal, may be willing to become a partner on with the city and the development district,” Disch suggested.

Despite the conflicting visions, Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong expressed her support for the project. The current motel, she said, is frequented by law enforcement responding to calls. Even a car wash, she said, would be a better use, even if it doesn’t blend with the vision for the corridor.

“The use there now has run its course, and the management is probably letting it die,” Armstrong said. “I would love for another use to be there. I’m excited about the fact there might be 20 jobs paying $20 an hour in that area. I understand it may not fit into the plan, but I would fully support this.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com