After whittling down a list of about 20 sites, project planners on Friday presented joint committees with five potential locations for a new state history museum in the capital city.
It's up to the director of the state Department of Administration to make the final selection from the candidates, which include:
- a location at East Sixth Avenue and Roberts street across the street from the Capitol and the Montana Historical Society;
- the site of the former Capital Hill Mall down the hill from the Capitol;
- Padbury Ranch in the South Hills east of the hospital;
- land the state owns near the Department of Transportation off Prospect Avenue;
- and property available for long-term lease at the airport.
The new Heritage Center has been a long time coming. Back in 2005, the state Legislature first authorized some funding for the project to expand exhibit and archive space and put into law that it would be located at the Sixth and Roberts site.
People are also reading…
But over the next 14 years the project stalled, caught in legislative battles over how to pay for it and where it should be located. Some argued Helena made the most sense, given that it's the state capital with complementary attractions like the Capitol building, original governor's mansion and more.
But the project often got caught in a larger debate over how much infrastructure funding should go to urban areas, with their larger tax bases, versus more rural areas hit hard by natural resource extraction but relatively few people to pay for projects.
Earlier this year, the logjam finally broke and lawmakers passed a bill to provide more money for the Heritage Center project, by using some of the state's lodging tax. The bill removed a requirement in state law the Heritage Center must be located across from the existing Montana Historical Society and next to the Capitol.
The bill directed the state to explore other possible options. The building is required, however, to be within city limits.
John Lewis, director of the state Department of Administration, will make the final site selection, as required under state law. He directed CTA Architects, which had been previously designated as consultants on the project, to review all possible locations.
"The need for expansion has been apparent for many, many years, decades," Lewis said Friday. He added though a previous site selection process the state went through in 2010, when creating a Capitol Complex Master Plan, already identified the location as Sixth and Roberts for the Heritage Center, it was important for the state complete the process required by the Legislature.
"Given the amount of work that has gone into this effort over the years, I can understand any feelings of frustration at the prospect of starting at this point. However, I think we owe it to the people in Montana to be as thorough, fair (and) thoughtful as possible, and allow this process to work. ... We have both an exciting opportunity and a tremendous responsibility to get this right."
There's no deadline for his decision, but he will start evaluating options once the report discussed Friday is finalized, around Thanksgiving. The committees will meet next Nov. 1.
CTA started by casting a wide net and using a real estate broker to help identify properties. All but five on the initial list of 20 were eliminated because they did not meet site evaluation criteria and were not in the city limits, as required by law, or could not be annexed.
Three of the five sites — Sixth and Roberts, the airport and Department of Transportation property — are projected to cost below the allotted project funding of $52.7 million to build the new Heritage Center and renovate the Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building.
That facility was built in 1950 and houses the Historical Society now. The aging building needs significant repairs to safely house artifacts and archives.
The mall site comes in slightly over the budget for the new building and renovation, at $54.7 million.
The Legislature approved $7.5 million bonding authority back in 2005, and $6.7 million of that is left to spend. Tapping the lodging tax is expected to generate about $34-36 million over the next four years and the Historical Society will raise another $10 million. So far it's come up with about $3.5 million toward that goal.
Much of the presentation Friday focused on the benefits of a Heritage Center near the Capitol, where it would be an obvious and visible option for visitors and tourists. It would also be next to the existing Historical Society location. Other sites farther from the Capitol had advantages like ample space for parking and ability to handle large vehicles like buses.
Zach Graham, with CTA, said only one other state history museum has artifacts and archives physically separated, which is what would happen with all the sites but Sixth and Roberts, unless the existing Historical Society was also moved to be next to the newly constructed Heritage Center.
But that option would require Legislative approval and additional funding, since all of those project cost estimates are significantly over the $52.7 million threshold, ranging from $81.6 million to $94.9 million.
The Sixth and Roberts site is favored by the Montana Heritage Society board, said Mike Shields, who is a board member.
"Moving the Historical Society or the Heritage Center away from the Capitol would be analogous to the Smithsonian moving the National Gallery of Art or the Air and Space Museum away from the (Washington, D.C.) Capitol," Shields said.
Shields also encouraged the committees that met Friday, which are the building and steering committees, to consider that if the state purchased privately owned land, that property would not contribute the same level of tax payments that would be generated from a private entity.
Some in Helena have tried to steer the project toward the former mall site. A group called the Montana History Center formed in 2018 with the goal of raising $2 million to purchase the Capital Hill Mall land, though it initially raised a reported $700.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins, along with two city commissioners, sent a letter in June to Gov. Steve Bullock saying they wanted the project to go in at the old mall site too.
Ralph Kune, a Montana History Center Board member, said the group isn’t focusing on fundraising right now, though it’s still taking donations, and is working on bringing awareness to why it would like the mall site selected.
The group has met with Lewis over the last few months and is reaching out to anyone possible to explain why it thinks the former mall site is best.
“I think we owe it to all the citizens of Montana to select a site that’s going to give us room to grow and also be prominent enough for people to come and see it,” Kuney said.
Graham said the mall site's owners have given the state a deadline of the end of the year to commit to purchasing some of the property, if that's the route Lewis chooses. The state would buy about 7.4 acres of land and deed a bit back to the city to punch Sanders street through.