Testimony on a bill that would appropriate $32.1 million in bonding for the Montana Heritage Center, a long-coveted project for the Montana Historical Society, was presented Thursday in the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on Long-Range Planning.
The 66-year-old building currently housing the MHS collection across North Roberts Street from the Capitol has become “inadequate” and is putting artifacts at risk, MHS director Bruce Whittenberg said Thursday. He added that even though exhibits are frequently shuffled, space permits only 5 percent to 8 percent of the MHS collection to be displayed at one time.
Plans for a revamped facility, dubbed the Montana Heritage Center, include renovation of the current MHS building and construction of a second directly across Sixth Avenue, which would increase available space from 93,000 square feet to nearly 159,000.
Funding for the project remains an issue, one that has brought MHS across the street to the Capitol during every legislative session for the past 14 years. Whittenberg told the subcommittee Thursday that $6.7 million remains of the $7.5 million in bonding approved by the Legislature in 2005. MHS is also committed to privately raising $10 million.
House Bill 14, carried by Rep. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, would appropriate $32.1 million in bonding for the Heritage Center and provide for other capital projects, including renovation of Montana State University’s Romney Hall.
Whittenberg emphasized Thursday that the cost of bonding the project would be outweighed by its economic benefits. A 2016 study by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research stated that MHS’ annual generation of personal income would rise from $9.4 million to $12.0 million after completion of the Heritage Center.
During the expected two years of construction, the study claims, that figure would more than double to $22.9 million.
“The Montana Historical Society has been called the Smithsonian of the West,” Whittenberg said. “Your historical society serves all Montanans. Montana’s heritage is not a partisan issue. And we hope that at this point and time, we can all come together to leave a legacy for our state. Our shared heritage is a bridge that connects us.”
Concerns from the bill’s opponents centered not on the Heritage Center itself, but its location.
Margaret Morgan spoke on behalf of the Montana History Center nonprofit, which prefers to see the Heritage Center located on the site of the 208,000-square-foot Capital Hill Mall. The mall, located four blocks north of the current MHS building, is scheduled for demolition next month.
“There is finally a real opportunity to develop this much-needed project in the right way and at the right time and in the right place,” Morgan said. “Montana can create a public-private partnership that can bring this vital project to completion. The state must look past the old ideas and realize the potential for placing the [treasure] of the Treasure State in the path of the public where it needs to be, and not in the background of the government, where it need not be.”
Whittenberg met with MHC board members in November but affirmed afterwards that his organization’s focus remained on the Sixth and Roberts site.
A ratified 2009 bill carried by subcommittee member and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, affirmed the Legislature’s intent to construct a new MHS building specifically at Sixth and Roberts. Sesso was in his third of four terms in the House when the bill became law.
After Thursday’s meeting, Sesso said he expects Lynch’s bill to advance to the House Appropriations Committee “as is.”
A proposed increase of state lodging taxes to pay for the Heritage Center project failed in the state Senate in 2017.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the proposed second building as "diagonally across Sixth and Roberts."