City Council gives initial nod to $1.15M funding assist for fairgrounds trails project

Members of the City Council on Wednesday approved a request from Missoula County to reimburse up to $1.15 million using tax increment financing to complete the design and construction of a trail system across and around the fairgrounds.

The cost represents a small portion of the larger multi-million dollar renovation efforts taking place at the county fairgrounds, though it may be the only portion of the project likely to receive funding from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

“The trail connections are part of the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s plan and the 2016 Bike Facilities Master Plan, both adopted by the City Council,” said fairgrounds director Emily Brock. “But for this money, those connections won’t happen, potentially ever.”

State law allows the use of tax increment to connect an urban renewal district to existing infrastructure located outside the area, such as the fairgrounds and the properties beyond.

In this case, the trail system will link areas of the Midtown district to the fairgrounds, along with local parks and schools, eliminating what for years has served as a fenced impediment to public access and connectivity.

While the funding drew opposition from council member Jesse Ramos, others said the project was needed and was identified in a number of plans over the years, including the 2011 Active Transportation Plan and a Midtown needs assessment.

“Infrastructure and connectivity is the elimination of blight all throughout the state’s enabling statutes,” said MRA Director Ellen Buchanan. “It’s the basis on which we’ve done most of the trail systems throughout the urban renewal districts to date.”

As approved, a trail will cross the fairgrounds from Fairview Avenue to South Avenue. Two additional trails will skirt the fairgrounds on both the east and south sides, connecting with the YMCA and Playfair Park.

A series of walkways will also be constructed on the fairgrounds and the chain link fence will also come down, replaced with wrought iron fencing and landscaping. As per the agreement, the trails must be open to the public year round, less special events that require controlled access.

“This is the connectivity we’re talking about that goes beyond the fairgrounds itself,” said council member Bryan von Lossberg. “There’s no question about the validity and use of this funding.”

To fund the project, MRA looks to wrap the $1.1 million into bonds for construction of Montana Rail Link Park and completion of the last segment of the Bitterroot Branch Trail.

Combined, the entire bonding package will amount to roughly $5 million, and while both the trails project at the fairgrounds and the nearby park project are both tax exempt, Buchanan said the Urban Renewal District has the adequate capacity to cover it.

“With the investment that we are seeing in the Brooks corridor, URD III has a very positive outlook,” she said.