Missoula committee OKs new community center design; new public art wall downtown | Local News

There’s no money for it yet, but Missoula is one step away from full approval of the conceptual designs for a proposed new city-owned community center at McCormick Park.

Called the Currents Center for Recreation and Creativity, the facility is still in the planning stages. No definitive funding source has been identified. City officials have in the past estimated the 84,600-square-foot project would cost roughly $44.5 million and would be built on the north side of the Currents Aquatic Center.

It would be a year-round, indoor gathering space for sports, community dances, nonprofit service group functions and theater performances.

Last week, the City Council’s Climate, Conservation and Parks Committee approved the design and set a public hearing for May 23. At that meeting, the full City Council will vote on giving the designs the final go-ahead.

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“This is just to approve the conceptual drawing,” noted council member Amber Sherrill. “This is not to approve funding. It’s really nothing other than saying we are approving these conceptual drawings of this plan.”

Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler said her office wanted the council to approve the drawings as a way to better engage the public.

“What that gets us, as you well know, is much broader advertising,” Gaukler said. “And I think it sends a message to the public that the council is considering something that does have community-wide significance.”

Through a years-long process of seeking public input, Gaukler said that her department found that Missoulians want to see an all-ages structure that can host community events.

“There’s been a clear demand for a facility like this as our community grows,” she said.

The designs show a multi-purpose facility that could host plays, ballroom dances and other all-ages events. Gaukler noted that it’s not intended to duplicate what concert venues like the Wilma currently provide.

“This is for residents, by residents and about residents,” she said. “It’s not for tourists.”

Because the facility would be open for 10-12 hours a day for 360 days a year, it would provide a much-needed indoor space with clean air during the wildfire season and during inclement winter weather. Many events that are currently hosted outdoors around Missoula could now move under a roof, she said.

“The goal is to create a multi-purpose Missoula community center centrally located in McCormick Park that serves to provide access to a multi-generational, year-round, affordable public facility,” Gaukler said. “There are many of our residents who do not have access to clean air on a regular basis.”

In the same meeting, the committee gave the green light to wrapping a utilitarian downtown Missoula power infrastructure facility with public art.

The members voted unanimously to approve a license agreement with NorthWestern Energy to lease a yet-to-be constructed wall around its electric power substation next to Caras Park for $2,500 a year. The wall would then be used as a place for the installation of public art, with submissions reviewed by the city’s Public Art Committee.

“This is a great opportunity to expand our public art inventory,” explained council member Mirtha Becerra. “This would further the goals of the Downtown Master Plan and the North Riverside Parks and Trails Plan to include big art. And it’s an opportunity to engage local artists and diversify the type of art that we have in the community as well.”

The large substation has been in continuous service since the 1920s and is located in the parking lot just to the south of the Millennium Building. NorthWestern Energy plans to totally rebuild the facility to provide improved reliability and increased capacity. Construction starts in May and ends around December. A temporary substation has been put in place while work is underway.

Gaukler said that they negotiated the lease amount down from six times the final number.

She said NorthWestern was concerned about the costs associated with building a wall that’s appropriate for art.

Council member Daniel Carlino said NorthWestern “does a lot of propaganda advertising.” For example, he said that the company has billboards promoting the importance of clean rivers while working to build gas pipelines under rivers in Montana.

The energy company won’t actively have a vote in what gets chosen, but council member Heidi West noted the company will probably have veto power.

Gaukler added NorthWestern won’t have a say in what gets put on the wall, but the company wanted to be sure whatever art is chosen for the wall isn’t “something that portrays NorthWestern Energy in a negative way.”

Sherrill said that the city council will have other opportunities to vet which artists are chosen if public funds are used to pay a stipend to the artist.

“I love this,” Sherrill said. “I’ve recently been in different cities and I noticed how they have entire sides of buildings painted. I noticed they are timely as far as topics that are important to community and a beautiful and amazing way to get local artists involved.”

The lease agreement will still have to be approved by the full City Council at a future meeting.

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