“Make it as big and proud as you can!” were the final visionary words spoken by the late First Lady Betty Babcock to the Montana Legislative Assembly at the 2013 hearing as a proponent for construction of a new Montana Heritage Center. Last week, four Montana Historical Society trustees, whom most of us know and all of us admire, wrote an IR Guest View (Aug. 5, 2019) stating that her remarks were “in favor of this project at the Sixth and Roberts location.”
Actually, Betty Babcock was the face and citizen spirit of an impressive public-private partnership that restored our State Capitol and advocated for building a magnificent Montana Heritage Center at the mall entrance to town. She established the Capitol Restoration Foundation and then dedicated much of her final years to her goal of a new heritage center “better than Wyoming” to display and store “our world-class collection,” creating for this purpose Montana History Center, Inc., a nonprofit entity five members of which wrote this guest view supporting the mall site and Betty's vision.
There has been active support for the mall site since 1978, when Governor Tom Judge worked with Montana Historical Society to determine future space needs, through recommendations by Governors Marc Racicot and Judy Martz, with support from many too numerous to name, until Governor Martz signed the bill sponsored by Sen. John Brueggeman providing $7.5 million to purchase the mall site and the bill by Sen. Mike Cooney to name the new history center after a major donor. In 2008, Governor Brian Schweitzer signed a letter of intent to purchase the mall site for the Montana Heritage Center, but the deal fell through.
Discouraged by that failure and with new executive branch and historical society staff, then-Director of the Department of Administration Janet Kelly issued in 2009 a determination that the Sixth-Roberts site was to be the Montana Heritage Center location, primarily because it was thought this might achieve more success with the legislature.
The 2015 legislature passed SB 367, by Sen. Jill Cohenour, that the Montana History Center be named after Betty Babcock, who died after the 2013 session adjourned at age 91. The project never came to fruition due to various obstacles: context of construction bills in the legislature, donations withdrawn, a portion of the land owned by one entity and the building owned by another, asbestos, and some legislators wanting to repurpose the mall facility, while others wanted to build from scratch.
With these past issues no longer a factor and about six acres available for state purchase right now at a price less than offered by Governor Schweitzer, locating the Montana Heritage Center at the mall site would create exciting synergy with the new upscale hotel and restaurant planned there. Consider please these points supporting this site and refuting selection of the Sixth and Roberts site.
• The site is a clean slate, which provides the most cost-effective construction of a museum for priceless artifacts, fine art and archival material, especially in an earthquake zone like Helena. Such construction will obviate concern about proximity to high-traffic areas, as it has recently in major museums built on highways at Cody, Minneapolis and Tucson.
• The mall is the ONLY location close to the Capitol that will provide for all MT Historical Society employees under one roof, allow for expansion in future phases, and enable full display of many significant Montana artifacts currently in multiple storage sites.
• Drive-through tourists will stop by its very presence at the intersection of two highways and such a world-class facility will entice staying another day, generating more revenue for the center, city, state and local businesses.
• Parking capacity will be at least 400 more than at Sixth St. and will be far more user friendly to accommodate Montana’s citizens, school buses and tourists, many with RVs, as well as parking and boarding the Tour Train and Capitol Shuttle.
• Utilizing the mall site will allow refurbishing the historic Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building, with retention of veterans and pioneers space as required by terms of their contributions, and creation of new legislative offices, hearing rooms and additional needed meeting space kitty-corner to the Capitol.
• It also will preserve both the current heavily-utilized parking spaces near the Capitol and the Facilities and Grounds Maintenance buildings, used by about 20 carpenters, plumbers, painters, mowers, etc. with all of their equipment to respond to Capitol Complex needs 24/7. Buying new trucks and paying annually for gas and personnel hours to travel to and from an off-site location is a major negative of the alternative site.
Continuing a big and proud vision for the new Montana Heritage Center at the mall site, we are launching a new website -- www.montanaheritagecenter.org -- to lend support for a destination center that truly will showcase, teach and preserve our rich history.
This opinion is signed by the following members of the nonprofit Montana History Center Inc: President Lorna Kuney, Secretary Shirley Herrin, and members Jane Hamman, Norma Jean Kelly, Ralph Kuney and Rosana Skelton.