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To the question of whether Helena should grow "up or out," several panelists claimed it's no contest at a town meeting Thursday night: preserving and revitalizing downtown beats sprawling into the Helena Valley, they said.

Helena architect Mike Dowling, a Business Improvement District board member, said the first in a series of meetings on the growth of the region hosted by the BID and the Helena Citizens Council is meant to start a community-wide discussion of how Helenans envision the community's future.

"Hopefully we've started a spark that will create a fire of dicussion around this topic," he said.

For developer Jeff Rhoads, president of the Argonaut Company that's planning the densely-developed Artisan Park subdivision northwest of the city, building downtown beats building on the outskirts for environmental as well as community-focused reasons.

"With gas approaching $4 a gallon, sprawling development is not sustainable," he said. "People in walkable mixed-use areas use 30 percent less fuel."

Ralph Johnson, who teaches architecture at Montana State University, noted that redeveloping a downtown area isn't something that happens just once.

"Downtowns are unique and particular, but they're always in transition, always in need of replenishment," he said. "Downtowns are not fixed in time. You always have to reinvent them."

Helena architect Mike Dowling and Laurence Hubbard, president of the Montana State Fund, discussed the process through which the workers' compensation agency found a new home at the north end of downtown. Ground is expected to be broken later this year on a building that will keep MSF's 250 workers downtown.

"Providing healthy and productive work spaces is very critical to the future," Hubbard said. "My employees and myself have valued being citizens of downtown."

Dowling noted that the State Fund building, which will be located next to to the Great Northern Town Center in addition to the two new federal buildings, will add to the density and shared use potential of that part of downtown.

"There's a synergy that starts to be created with some of the adjacent buildings," he said. With some space available for public use in the State Fund building, the Best Western providing conference space nearby and a 200-person training center as part of the under-construction Montana School Boards Association building, "there's starting to become a mass of shareable buildings, and other developers then don't have to build that space."

The meeting comes as another major employer is considering a new home. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana, which employs nearly 600 people in two downtown buildings, is planning to build a new building, either downtown or on the outskirts.

CEO Sherry Cladouhos and several members of her team were on hand.

"We haven't begun the site selection process yet, but we will definitely be looking at downtown," she said.

Future meetings will cover topics like transportation, growth in and around the Capitol complex and other growth opportunities outside the urban core.

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