All four Montana Historical Society trustees from Helena strongly endorse placing the future home of the Montana Historical Society at the corner of Sixth and Roberts on the Capitol Complex in Helena. We also urge a thoughtful but expeditious decision in determining the location.
We sit on the 15-member board, which, along with the Montana Historical Society director, oversee the mission of the 154-year-old historical society. The full board unanimously supports the Sixth and Roberts site over the alternate proposal at the former Capital Hill Mall.
Here is our rationale:
The current home of the Montana Historical Society is the Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building. Dedicated in 1953, this building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and should remain part of our history.
Construction of the Montana Heritage Center, across the street to the north at the Sixth and Roberts location, will allow for the use of state-owned property – at no acquisition cost. This plan also involves expanded parking for the Capitol Campus and renovation of the existing historic building in addition to construction of the new expansion.
The proposed location is kitty-corner to the state Capitol, which provides important synergy with the Montana Historical Society. Visitors often combine their visits to the Capitol and the Historical Society and can do so easily, once they park on the campus. These are presumably the two most visited attractions in Helena. Separation would affect visitation negatively.
The Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building currently provides meeting space and hosts events for other state agencies and groups. At the proposed Sixth and Roberts location, those amenities would significantly add to the capacity of the Capitol Campus for state-of-the-art meeting space, legislative hearings or meetings and more. Any move off campus would reduce available space from current levels, a disadvantage to the campus and the public.
The current proposal improves parking availability on the Capitol Campus, gaining 93 parking spaces, while providing excellent access and parking for buses and RVs. Other locations provide no such improvement for the campus.
Legislative hearings on the bill calling for construction of the new Montana Historical Society building on the Capitol Campus site drew the support of numerous, diverse groups. They included the Montana Preservation Alliance; Montana Contractors Association; Montana Infrastructure Coalition, Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association; Montana Chamber of Commerce; Helena, Billings and Bozeman Area Chambers of Commerce; Montana League of Cities and Towns; and Montana Federation of State Employees.
The site at the old Capital Hill Mall is not suited for a museum property, exhibition and storage of priceless artifacts, fine art and archival material. The proximity to high-traffic areas creates environmental concerns for collections due to vibration and air pollution. Remember, this is a museum facility, not an office building or visitors center.
Work began nearly 15 years ago on this expansion and renovation. The Montana Historical Society has been presenting the plans for the Montana Heritage Center at Sixth and Roberts to donors, members and friends for over a decade. We also worked hard for eight legislative sessions to gain support and develop a proposal that would achieve success and gain authority and funding. That was accomplished in the 2019 session.
The Sixth and Roberts site was thoroughly vetted by the Department of Administration. In 2009, then-Director Janet Kelly issued a determination that the Sixth and Roberts site was to be the home of the Montana Heritage Center for significant financial advantages in addition to the reasons cited here.
The Montana Heritage Center, by law, will bear the name of the late First Lady Betty Babcock. She testified in the 2013 Legislature in favor of this project at the Sixth and Roberts location.
We should have a high degree of confidence in the future of the Capital Hill Mall development for commercial use, revitalizing an important commercial area of Helena. It will not need the Montana Heritage Center to be successful. By selecting the Capital Hill Mall site for a new state-owned property, that high-value commercial property would become tax-exempt – a huge loss of property tax revenue for the city, county and state. The Sixth and Roberts site is currently state-owned property. That high-value commercial mall site should be allowed to develop and generate revenue for the city and state.
We have great confidence in the Department of Administration to conduct a thorough, thoughtful and transparent process of site selection. We expect that process will be based on logic and good “science” and be concluded in a timely manner so that project planning can move forward.
This opinion is signed by Montana Historical Society trustees Ed Jasmin, Chuck Johnson, Mike Shields and Crystal Wong Shors of Helena.