MISSOULA — Missoula's economic development leaders believe the city has hit a "home run" with a new hotel and events center project for the Riverfront Triangle -- and this latest news appears likely to create even more impact in the next few years.
The Missoula City Council and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency recently approved a 75-year lease with developer Nick Checota to erect the hotel on the long vacant "Fox Theater" property off Orange Street.
Missoula leaders acknowledge that will bring more change to downtown, but also meets objectives in the new Downtown Master Plan.
"I think we acknowledge pain, but eventually the majority rules and we move forward in one way or another. We had an extensive downtown master planning process that called for this kind of development along the riverfront," Mayor John Engen said. "And we're seeing those planning processes become manifest today."
"Everybody has every expectation that it's going to change, and it's going to be massive change. I think that the question would be that people would be disappointed that it's too small. Rather than not big enough," MRA Assistant Director Chris Behan said.
During a press conference following the lease approvals last week, MRA Director Ellen Buchanan called the Riverfront Triangle Project a "home run" for the city's economy, noting how expansion of the already existing concert and events business is already having a big economic impact.
It certainly comes during heady times for the city's economic development efforts, with millions of dollars in large, and smaller projects completed or underway.
Some may criticize how that's changing Missoula's character, quickly -- but the MRA believes the turnaround is not just dramatic, but necessary, compared with where the city's downtown was 30-years ago.
"When I started work at MRA there was 400,000-square feet of vacant space the downtown. Okay, so we've gone from there. This wouldn't have worked then," Behan said.
I mean even if somebody just did it. It wouldn't have. So, the downtown has grown to a point that it can absorb something like this, which is the best thing that can possibly happen for it."
"And I think with respect to MRA overall, you've seen us get involved over the last 10 or 15-years in larger and larger economic development projects. And this is the kingpin. This is the largest of all of them," Buchanan said.
It brings us to a watershed moment for Missoula that emphasizes one of the main goals for the Downtown Master Plan -- encouraging growth but not losing ourselves.
Missoula downtown leaders say the city has attracted $850 million in new investment over the past decade, and that doesn't include any of the new plans for the Riverfront Triangle.