MISSOULA — With a historic school building last used as an administrative office by Missoula County Public Schools sitting empty, a local business has expressed interest in repurposing the facility for a new generation of use.
Missoula County on Thursday signed a letter to the school district supporting Ryan and Jenny Montgomery’s proposal to repurpose the historic structure, which could include its use as a boutique hotel and restaurant.
The building, located on Sixth Street, remains on Preserve Historic Missoula’s list of Most Endangered Historic Sites.
“This has not been a school since the Korean War,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury. “Adaptive reuse of this building is great community development and in no way endangers any child.”
While the building was last used as a school in the 1950s, the school district used it as an administrative office over the years that followed. But the district moved out three months ago and is looking to lease the facility to a new entity.
Montgomery has expressed interest in leasing the property and has submitted a proposal to the district. The county is backing the proposal, billing it as adaptive reuse, economic development and saving a historic structure.
“Montgomery submitted the most complete response to the (request for proposals) the district issued last year, and we support their proposal, as it would adaptively restore and renovate the building while preserving its historic integrity,” the county wrote. “The building, which served as Missoula’s first high school, may otherwise be left to decay due to lack of use.”
MCPS has a district-wide policy banning alcohol on school property, and while the admin building is empty, it remains under district ownership. But advocates of adaptive reuse believe the school’s policy on alcohol should be reconsidered for the vacant property.
The county contends that the district’s policy makes sense for a building that’s used as a school. But the district’s most recent boundary study made no mention of the admin building being needed as a school at any point in the future.
“The Montgomery proposal falls within the school board’s vision of collaboration and critical thinking and would create a community asset in a neighborhood that’s currently underserved,” the county wrote. “We encourage you to approve it.”
While the school district hasn’t weighed in on the proposal, Diane Lorenzen, a member of the school district’s board of trustees, opposes the county’s support for the Montgomery proposal.
Lorenzen said that while the board voted to lease the facility to an outside entity, it only received one letter of response before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“We’re trying to work our way through this process,” Lorenzen said. “To me, this letter feels like pressure, and the school doesn’t need pressure right now. MCPS has occupied this building for 100 years, and we’ve been out of it for three months.”
Lorenzen suggested it was odd for the county to express interest in a facility, suggesting it was only interested in generating property taxes. That would preclude it being used by a nonprofit, she added.
“Given all my years on the board, I haven’t seen the commission step up and express any interest in a facility,” she said. “This feels out of a context.”
Commissioners disputed Lorenzen’s suggestion, saying their support for repurposing the facility had nothing to do with taxation.
“We’re advocating for adaptive reuse of a historical structure that would also promote economic development,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “We have a vested interest in the success of businesses in our county.”
While the Montgomery proposal would ensure economic development and restore vibrancy to a shuttered building, it would also repurpose a historic structure. In the past, historic buildings left empty for extended periods of time in Missoula have led to decay and eventually ruin.
That was the fate of the Mercantile, a once vibrant facility in the heart of downtown Missoula. After its use as a department store, it sat empty for nearly eight years, leading to its decay. It was ultimately deconstructed and redeveloped and now houses multiple businesses providing dozens of jobs.
“This community hasn’t done the greatest job over the years to hanging on to and adaptively reusing cherished and valued historic structures,” Strohmaier said. “I would hate for this particular structure to fall into the same category, as too many others have, and slip away, either through the wrecking ball or though demolition by neglect.”