The Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s board of directors agreed on Thursday to give $200,000 to the Missoula Public Library and pledged an additional $300,000 over the next four years to help the facility retain the top floor of its new building, as envisioned in its design.
Members of the library board approached MRA last month with their initial request, seeking $500,000 from the Front Street Urban Renewal District. The district doesn’t have that amount of funding on hand, however, and MRA was reluctant to issue debt to cover the cost.
MRA director Ellen Buchanan said the resulting agreement will see MRA contribute $200,000 in cash from the district and pledge an additional $300,000 over four years, not to exceed $75,000 in any given year, and only if there’s excess increment available.
That satisfied members of the library board, who lobbied strongly for the contribution.
Mae Nan Ellingson, finance chair of the Foundation for the Missoula Public Library, said the library’s funding shortage was revealed as A&E Architects moved through the process of design engineering and found that the facility couldn’t be delivered on its $36.3 million budget.
To date, the library has raised $4.6 million in private donations, along with $705,000 in other revenues, plus $30 million from the bond that passed in 2016, according to records provided to MRA.
“We were showing we were about $1.25 million over what they could deliver,” Ellingson said. “One of the logical ways to shave off that $1.25 million was to shave off the fourth story. But as someone who has worked really hard on this library and wants it to be an iconic establishment for downtown, I was not very willing to let go of that fourth floor, and neither was the board or downtown.”
Set on keeping the top floor, the foundation approached Missoula Mayor John Engen and MRA to discuss the funding shortage. With encouragement from the mayor, the foundation proceeded to include the top floor in the final design.
“We had to make a decision at that point about whether we could move on, because you have to decide early on if it’s going to be four or three stories,” Ellingson said. “We felt in order to make a decision to go ahead with that fourth story, we needed to pursue help from the MRA.”
The foundation approached MRA last month with its request, which was originally higher than the $500,000 agreed upon Thursday. They also found support from Engen, who lobbied for the funding on the library’s behalf.
Engen said the city supports the project and voters do as well, evidenced by the passage of the $30 million bond. The top floor, which has been indicated in renderings since the project’s inception, is intended to serve as a community meeting space.
“Deleting the top floor of this facility as a function of a commitment to the community doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me,” Engen said. “I have faith in the library that we’ll get a building that matters to this community for a long time. It’s a minimus pledge today. It’s perfectly reasonable.”
While MRA approved the agreement, several members of the board voiced concern before doing so, fearing it would limit MRA’s ability to fund other projects in the Front Street district.
Board member Tasha Jones said that while the $500,000 request may be small in comparison to the project’s $36 million price tag, it still represents a large percentage of the Front Street district’s revenue.
“While the percentage you’re asking from us is small in comparison to your bigger project, it’s large in comparison to the amount of money it ties up,” Jones said. “Whether you call it a debt or a pledge, it still ties our hands because we’ll feel morally obligated to live by that pledge, and we should.”
Geoff Badenoch, a member of the library foundation, said the city expressed similar concerns back in 1985 when weighing the use of tax increment financing to construct Caras Park. While the city’s mayor at the time was against use of the funding, MRA voted to approve it anyway.
The park now serves as a downtown attraction and has paid dividends to the community since its construction, Badenoch said. The library will achieve the same results, he added.
“This is the most important public structure that will be built in our downtown in the foreseeable future,” Badenoch said. “It’s making a small investment in a project that’s going to bring dividends to Missoula County for the next two or three generations.”
The day before MRA voted to contribute $500,000 to the library, members of the City Council approved a $3.6 million bond, of which $175,000 will be paid to cover cost overruns and funding shortfalls associated with the Missoula Art Park.
Ellingson said the library won’t encounter a similar outcome due to the way the contract is structured.
“The county is the party that will enter into the construction contract,” Ellingson said. “We have a financial and construction agreement with the county that requires that before we enter into a guaranteed maximum price contract, we have to deposit the money with them that’s necessary to complete the project. That’s why we’re making sure we have the money before the contract is let.”
This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.