Missoula County, City begins work on historic Federal Building

Missoula County, City begins work on historic Federal Building

Martin Kidston

(Missoula Stream) With limestone cut from Montana rock interspersed with marble, wood floors and oak, the old Federal Building in downtown Missoula still bears nods to its past, dating back to 1913.

As the saying goes, they don’t build things like they used to, which is one reason the city and county of Missoula spent years lobbying the federal government to donate the historic building to the local government in exchange for its permanent upkeep.

Now is the time to begin renovations and transform the sprawling facility into a comprehensive hub for city and county services.

“One of the things we talked about is the comprehensive people lobby,” said Chris Lounsbury, Missoula County Administrative Officer. “Whether you’re coming to register your car, pay taxes, your city water bill or parking, they’ll all have one location.”

On Monday, the city and county opened the building to a media tour, detailing their plans to tackle renovations and prepare the facility for public use. They also took the opportunity to announce the facility’s new name: the John Engen Local Government Building – a tribute to the late Missoula mayor.

The task facing renovation crews can be difficult, given the building’s sheer size and renovation periods. The wooden floors were covered with pieces of carpet. The high ceilings are hidden by drop ceilings inlaid with fluorescent lights. One of the electrical panels is a rat’s nest of old phone lines and communications cables.

Magnify that across three floors and one apartment building and the scale of the project becomes clear.

“What we got has a lot of potential, but we’re a little tired of the old systems and outdated assets,” said John Adams, the city’s director of projects. “I don’t think it’s changed since the Bush administration, and I mean the Herbert Walker Bush administration.”

Initial estimates once put the cost of renovating the building at $40 million, but that has been lowered to an estimated cost of about $17 million. Last month, the county directed an EPA brownfield grant to begin remediating asbestos and lead-based paint.

This phase of the project, which will begin soon, includes removing any items containing PCBs and mercury.

“We’re going to do a basic upgrade — repairs, electrical and internet technology systems. It can be accessed through different funding sources,” said Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess. “We could sell City Hall, we could stop making rental payments for the different private spaces that we have downtown,” Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess said. And we can sell the city council chambers. “This is one of the early things we can do.”

The old federal courthouse could become home to the city council chambers and Missoula County hearing room once renovations are completed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The old federal courthouse could become home to the city council chambers and Missoula County hearing room once renovations are completed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The city and county have in the past expressed interest in selling their downtown properties once their employees move into the federal building, and the proceeds will help pay for the renovations.

After reviewing their options, the city and county found that renovating the federal building proved cheaper than any other plan, which at one point included building a new government building.

“We looked at four options, and this was by far the cheapest, in some ways by a factor of two or three,” Hess said. “The City Hall building has reached the end of its life and the mechanical systems are out of order. This renovation not only preserves the historic building, it brings the city and county together.”

Once the renovations are completed — sometime in 2026 — the city and county will consider selling their other properties and consolidating services. As the two governments work to be co-located, it could also make room for the local court system, which has struggled to get a place now for several years.

It’s one of many efficiencies planned as the process gets underway and consolidation begins, Lounsbury said.

“We’re talking about co-locating all the courts. With the clerk and recorder’s office moving into this building, it will free up enough space in the county courthouse to house the city courts.

While parking was an issue for some during the planning process, the city and county do not anticipate any problems. When the building served as headquarters for the U.S. Forest Service, it employed up to 400 people.

“There were all these people working in this building with the same level of parking we have now,” Hess said. “We do not provide parking at City Hall. We manage parking downtown as a whole, and the Parking Commission will continue to do that.”

Hess added that visitor parking will be made available in the short term but is still an obstacle that needs to be crossed.

“If you’re coming in for a fencing permit, you should be able to park easily,” Hess said.

The old federal courthouse could become home to the city council chambers and Missoula County hearing room once renovations are completed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The old federal courthouse could become home to the city council chambers and Missoula County hearing room once renovations are completed. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

View of downtown Missoula from the third floor. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

View of downtown Missoula from the third floor. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Any empty portion of windows surrounding the future work space in the building. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Any empty portion of windows surrounding the future work space in the building. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hice, left, and the city’s projects director tour the third floor of the vacant building. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hice, left, and John Adams, city projects director, tour the third floor of the vacant building. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Material samples were taken from various points throughout the building. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Material samples were taken from various points throughout the building. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

(Tags for translation)Development

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