A big game of Tetris is taking shape downtown, as Missoula County and the city of Missoula prepare to consolidate several government services into the currently vacant historic former federal building at 200 E. Broadway by 2026.
The move would allow both governments to free up older downtown buildings they currently occupy, such as the current City Hall, to be sold to developers and presumably redeveloped for other uses.
On Monday, the city and county held a dedication and naming ceremony for the facility, which will be renamed in honor of the late Missoula Mayor John Engen, the longest-serving mayor in Missoula’s history.
A crowd gathered in the building’s large room to listen to speakers who recalled Engen’s commitment to the prosperity of downtown Missoula.
The building will now be called the John Engen Local Government Building. Or, for those inclined toward brevity, simply the Engen Building.
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Engen, who died in August 2022 after 16 years at the helm, had strongly advocated for the building to be transferred from federal to provincial government after the Forest Service exited in 2015.
Engen’s own words, in a 2019 letter he wrote to the Federal Government Services Administration, succinctly state the city and county’s case for preserving and using one of the city’s most important historic buildings.
“We can provide easy access to a wide range of essential services, all in one place, while repurposing public assets, making our existing insufficient spaces available for redevelopment, and relieving the Department of State Services of the burden of maintaining and managing critically underserved public facilities.” In use. “The facility, investing in deferred maintenance and revitalizing a residential building in a thriving downtown,” Engen wrote in the letter.
The city and county acquired the building free of charge from the federal government, and its value is estimated at between $14 million and $17.5 million. But it will cost between $14 million and $16 million just for the first construction phase to make the building usable and accessible for the public and employees. Both the city and county expect this cost to be largely offset by savings in space the city and county lease from private property owners after those offices are vacated.
The three-story building has a daylight basement and 120,000 square feet of usable space. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and according to architects hired by the city, it maintains many “Italian Renaissance Revival” characteristics, especially on the exterior. It was expanded in 1929 and 1938.
Asbestos, lead paint and other hazardous materials will be restricted starting in early 2024, which could allow services to be moved to the building in early 2026.
The building will be the new home for a variety of government services currently spread across multiple buildings in the city centre. For example, the new building will host Missoula City Council meetings, county commissioner meetings, building permits, vehicle registration, marriage licenses, and utility billing offices.
“This is a beautiful, historic building that is an anchor downtown, and it is well built,” Mayor Jordan Hess explained. “They don’t build buildings like this anymore. This building will last as long as we take care of it.”
Both the City Council Chamber Building at 140 W. Pine and the City Hall Building at 435 Ryman Street could eventually be sold and redeveloped after the new building is ready to accommodate government employees and the public. The county also uses several buildings downtown that could also be sold and redeveloped.
Acquiring the federal building was by far the least expensive option for taxpayers in terms of securing the future of government employees in downtown Missoula, Hess said.
“We looked at renovating City Hall, we looked at tearing down City Hall and rebuilding it on the site, and we looked at leasing private space downtown,” Hess said. “And that was by far the cheapest option. I mean, in some ways by a factor of two or three.”
He said the current City Hall building has reached the end of its life and the mechanical systems are down. He also noted that having the county and city government services in one place will save people a lot of hassle.
“So being able to consolidate everything into one building, that really helps with that,” he said.
Parking is something the city will be working on, Hess noted, and they will have temporary spots for people who need to do quick work inside the building.
David Erickson is the Missoulian’s business reporter.