Mayor to work for compromise between labor group, developers

Mayor John Engen plans to sit down with Hotel Fox Partners and the Community Benefits Coalition to work out a sticking point on labor agreements surrounding a planned downtown hotel and conference center. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Members of the Missoula City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee took no action Wednesday on a development agreement for a large downtown hotel and conference center, though they expressed support for the project as it currently stands.

Before the committee is asked to approve the agreement, most likely next week, Mayor John Engen plans to sit down with the developers and a community group to work out one last sticking point between the two parties.

“I want us to have something reasonable to propose to you all,” Engen told the committee. “I hope we can reach some form of agreement by next week. If we can come up with a way to get there, we’re going to do that. It was my request to have a week to get in the middle of this.”

Over the past four years, the Community Benefits Coalition has worked with Hotel Fox Partners to help shape the downtown project, suggesting that the inclusion of public funds gives them the right to dictate portions of the otherwise private development.

The group said last week that the developers have been willing to meet their demands, with the exception of one. That pertains to the group’s request that a labor agreement be in place before the hotel and conference center is built.

The developers, who didn’t address the committee on Wednesday, have said that the agreement is not part of standard business practices and would cheat future employees out of whether they wanted to unionize or not.

In return, members of the community group have threatened to boycott, strike or picket the project if they don’t get their way.

“I’m hopeful to be able to see this project through,” Mark Anderlik, a member of the coalition and president of the Missoula Area Central Labor Council said Wednesday. “We’ve had some snags we’re going to be working diligently to resolve. The question is, how are we going to be able to get that done? I’m going to keep that in the drawer at this point.”

Under the terms of the development agreement, Hotel Fox Partners would purchase a parcel of city-owned property in the Riverfront Triangle for $2.3 million, where it will build a 200-room hotel and a 29,000-square-foot conference center atop two levels of structured parking.

Once the project is finished, the city would purchase the conference center and parking garage back from the developer for $6.5 million and $8.8 million, respectively. The city would pay the debt using new tax revenues and parking dues generated by the facilities.

“We’ve been talking about this site for a very long time,” Engen said. “This agreement in its current form allows us to move forward in a dramatic way on that site that will benefit the community for many years to come.”

The site has sat vacant in the heart of downtown Missoula for 17 years, dating back to when the city purchased a portion of the property and razed a gas station and restaurant. The land that housed the old Fox Theater, from which the project gets its name, has been in city ownership since 1984.

While many efforts to develop the site have come and gone, Hotel Fox Partners received exclusive rights to realize a larger development and have since spent millions of dollars buying up surrounding lots to accommodate the project.

Engen and members of the council asked the two sides to do their best to find a solution to the labor agreement. The committee is expected to vote on the development agreement next week, followed by the City Council next month.

“Since the Missoula City Council entered into an agreement with Hotel Fox Partners, we’ve gone through many iterations to get where we are,” Engen said. “We have long talked about doing something great at this site. This project is transformative.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com