MISSOULA – The city of Missoula and Missoula County would like to use the historic downtown federal building as a future hub for local government services and offices.
In a letter to the Denver region of the General Services Administration, the Missoula County commissioners and Mayor John Engen expressed interest in using the vacant building for free under the GSA Good Neighbor program.
The U.S. Postal Service’s Hellgate Station would remain in the space.
The local governments would assume responsibility for repairs and maintenance, the cost of which is estimated at $10 million.
“Currently, both the city and county have multiple offices scattered around downtown, and I think both the city and the county are in the same position of doing some space needs analysis of looking out over the next five, 10, 20 years or more,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said Tuesday.
“What do we need for our respective campuses in downtown Missoula, because we have made a commitment to remain downtown and not build out into the periphery of town somewhere,” he said.
Services would be more accessible to citizens because of the block-long building’s central location and proximity to public transportation and public parking, the letter states.
While plans are in the preliminary stages, Strohmaier and Commissioner Josh Slotnick believe that all offices currently in the Missoula County Administration Building would be consolidated, including the commissioners, Missoula County Community & Planning Services, Missoula County Public Works, the Risk & Benefits office and others.
The letter suggests that the 90,000-square-foot structure has enough space to include veterans’ and homeless services and economic and community development offices, too. It would be subject to an interlocal agreement between the city and county.
“The timing, I think, is really opportune in that the city is in the process of updating the downtown master plan, and clearly a huge building like this in the heart of the community is something that needs to be taken into account in the planning process,” Strohmaier said at the commissioners’ Tuesday administrative meeting.
The U.S. Forest Service relocated from its downtown regional headquarters to Fort Missoula in 2015, and since then the building has remained mostly empty.
Both the city and county have been encouraged by both of Montana’s U.S. senators to take advantage of the building to relocate their cramped offices.
The Missoula County Courthouse would still be occupied by the county, and currently occupied offices could be used by other organizations or businesses once they relocate.
Helena and Lewis and Clark County have a similar arrangement with a former federal building.
“Lease terms that don’t generally work for the private sector and the sheer mass of the building for a limited audience of small federal agencies in the area make the prospects of (other) tenancy unlikely,” the letter states.
Strohmaier said that he worked for the U.S. Forest Service for four years in the late 1990s, and wants to see the space up and running again.
Slotnick said the public is concerned about the future of the structure, and using it would meet the community’s desire to fill the space.
“It’s use is a tried and true mechanism for achieving real historic preservation, and if we use that building, we can take care of it, breathe life into it and it in turn can breathe more life into an already vibrant downtown. Right now, it is as they described a mausoleum in active decay, which is doing no one any good,” Slotnick said.
The building opened in 1913 bounded by Broadway, Pine and Pattee, and served as the headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service for more than 100 years. It underwent an expansion in the 1930s and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
“It’s a building at the heart of Missoula’s history, it’s a beautiful structure at the center of our community and has a lot of potential, I think, to help revitalize downtown,” Strohmaier said.