MHS winter scene

The Montana Historical Society has asked the Legislature to partially fund an expansion project since the 2005 session.

Though a nonprofit organization is raising funds to help the Montana Historical Society open its planned heritage center on the site of Helena's Capital Hill Mall, MHS officials still aim to expand to a location next to the Capitol building.

"Our focus is on the Capitol Campus site going into this (legislative) session, as is authorized, proposed by the Governor and endorsed by the MHS Board of Trustees," MHS Director Bruce Whittenberg wrote in an email to the Independent Record. "There is an independent group of folks who strongly believe the Mall is the best site and have launched a campaign of sorts to that end."

The Montana Historical Society, a state agency under the executive branch, has been asking the Montana Legislature to fund a portion of its planned expansion since 2005. Whittenberg has concerns about the age of the existing building and air quality issues that could damage the museum's collection. Due to space limitations, the museum is only able to show 8 percent of its collection at one time.

Whittenberg said the Montana Historical Society remains focused on expanding to a parking lot at Sixth Avenue and Roberts Street, directly across from its existing building. Plans submitted during the 2017 legislative session called for 65,000 additional square feet of space for new exhibits, educational space, an outdoor amphitheatre and secure storage space in the new Montana Heritage Center, which would be connected to the existing building by an underground concourse as part of the $44 million project. 

Conversely, the nonprofit Montana History Center board founded and chaired by former First Lady Betty Babcock's daughter Lorna Kuney aims to "purchase the Helena Capital Hill Mall land and build a new Montana History Center through a public/private partnership with the State of Montana so the historical treasures of Montana and the Montana Historical Society may provide an extraordinary legacy for future generations.” The independent group has an initial fundraising goal of $2 million and a November benchmark of $500,000, and it had raised $700 by Sunday afternoon on its fundraising website: www.gofundme.com/montana-history-center.

Though he and the nonprofit have different ideas for the expansion, Whittenberg said he has been talking with its members "about how we can all support one direction or at least stay open to all of the possibilities."

“Although we remain open to good ideas for the future of the Montana Historical Society,” Whittenberg said in a Friday email, “we also remain focused on the project and site that have been proposed, thoroughly studied, vetted and planned by the Dept. of Administration Architects and Engineers Division."

Jane Lee Hamman, a volunteer member of the nonprofit's board, said the group met with Whittenberg last week under the pretense that they both share a common goal: “Creating the best possible, most outstanding new History Heritage Center in Helena to replace the old, inadequate facility as soon as feasible.”

Whittenberg said talks are ongoing, and "Jane’s group are good folks who are very passionate about the Mall as a location.”

KTVH reported last month that Capital Hill Mall's new owner Dick Anderson Construction plans to demolish the building after the lease of the final tenant, Lucky Lil’s Casino, ends in February 2019. Hamman said Anderson is making a 9.3 acre parcel on the property open for development, which she said is being eyed for the new museum.

According to a Nov. 16 press release from the nonprofit, consideration of the mall property for a new museum dates back to 1993 under then-Gov. Marc Racicot.

The Montana Heritage Center is the third-highest priority for the state Long-Range Building Program in the coming legislative session, behind the planned Southwest Montana Veterans Home in Butte and historic Romney Hall at Montana State University. The long-range planning proposal unveiled by Gov. Steve Bullock Nov. 15 includes $32.1 million in bond authority for the Montana Heritage Center.

A proposed increase of state lodging taxes to pay for the project failed in the state Senate in 2017.

Independent Record Editor Jesse Chaney and former Independent Record reporter Erin Loranger contributed to this story.

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