MISSOULA - While enthusiasm is running high around the potential acquisition of Marshall Mountain and the array of recreational programs it could support, members of the City Council are eager to see the numbers first.
Members of the Department of Parks and Recreation on Wednesday touched on the wide range of potential uses for the mountain if the city were to buy it, including a bunny hill where kids could learn to ski, a vast network of biking and hiking trails, and a reserveable campsite, among other things.
All ideas remain conceptual and will soon be distilled into a master plan that will include construction costs, maintenance costs and revenue potential, according to Morgan Valliant, the city's conservation lands manager.
“We're on track to get there,” Valliant said. “When it comes time for City Council and our county commissioners to assess the acquisition, we'll have construction numbers, operation and maintenance numbers, and the business plan that talks about revenue generation. That stuff is coming out.”
Recent surveys have found support for the proposed Marshal Mountain Regional Park — an area that already sees a high amount of recreation but could become private land in the future.
A group of philanthropists known as Izzy Dog LLC purchased the lower mountain last year to keep it from private ownership, at least for now.
The group allowed the city to lease the lower mountain for programs and to retain public access until the city and county determine if they want to buy the property for $1.92 million.
If they did, it would make Missoula one of only a handful of cities to own such a facility.
“We've got a short runway to acquisition,” said Valliant. “Once we get through this public comment period, we'll start having construction costs and a draft of operating costs.”
Even without public ownership, the site has emerged as one of the top recreation sites in Missoula, at least according to permits issued for various uses. In 2022, Valiant said the mountain attracted more than 3,500 permitted attendees.
In comparison, he said the city's other 5,000 acres of conservation lands drew around 2,000 permitted attendees. Those figures don't include self-initiated recreation but rather, they cover various city programs and courses taught by vendors which require enrollment.
“Already, Marshall Mountain — not being publicly owned — is creating a huge amount of public events and programming,” Valliant said. “We want to ensure we can protect recreational opportunities, public events and private events.”
How Marshall Mountain could be used
Potential uses of the mountain were gleaned from a shared community vision created through public sessions and an online survey. Mountain biking, hiking and backcountry skiing emerged as the top three uses the public would like to see in the future.
Other uses included public and private events, disc golf, picnics, wildlife viewing and horseback riding. While the city would remove the existing lower mountain ski lift and the old ski lodge, it could consider running a bunny hill where children could learn to ski and produce its own snow.
Wildlife and habitat protection would be included in any plan, city officials said.
The preferred uses varied based on questions formed around the mountain's base and mid-mountain opportunities. Securing the site for public use in perpetuity remains opportunistic, city officials said.
“We do have 2018 Open Space bonds at the city and county to help with that acquisition. We do have partners ready to invest. We have the potential for grants,” said Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation. “The big question that will come to City Council is whether to invest. These things are opportunistic, and we don't always get the chance to consider them.”
The mountain's ski slopes have given way to top-notch mountain biking trails.
For that consideration to take place, members of the City Council on Wednesday urged those who support the mountain's purchase to begin attaching dollar figures to program ideas, construction costs, long-term maintenance and staffing, and potential revenue returns.
“These concepts all look great and exciting,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “But the bigger question that's looming is the financing, paying for it and maintaining it. We're balancing managing what we already have while potentially bringing this online with a lot of uses.”
Council member Mirtha Becerra agreed and said she'd like to see a new community survey after the costs have been identified. Such a survey could determine whether taxpayers are willing to accept those costs.
“When it comes to getting behind some of the potential uses, it helps me to always have a price tag on things. I'm looking forward to the numbers,” Becerra said.
Valliant said that would occur early next year. The city has until June 1 before its lease with Izzy Dog LLC expires.
“When we get through this public comment period, we'll be pulling reports, refining the plans, finalizing the numbers. Our second public comment period would be the 90% plan with costs associated with it. That would happen mid-to-late January.”