It was a rather eventful week in Butte-Silver Bow’s stewardship of 40 E. Broadway, the five-buildings-in-one complex that formerly housed NorthWestern Energy’s headquarters.
A proposal from real estate developer Wishrock Housing Partners LLC was being readied by county staff for what looked like a quick slide through the Council of Commissioners. The deal would have meant Wishrock would market the building, assuming some of the utility and maintenance costs, and if successful would possibly be able to buy the building for $1.
Just before the matter was to be presented to the council, though, Commissioner Bill Andersen asked the council to postpone a vote on Wishrock’s proposal, because of a proposal by Helena entrepreneur Eric Fulton, who offered to commit an immediate $500,000 for renovations, as well as offering plans for several new businesses in the space.
This appeared to throw county staff and some commissioners into what can only be called a tizzy.
In slay-the-messenger mode at Wednesday’s meeting, some actually criticized The Montana Standard for reporting on Andersen’s request and Fulton’s proposal.
After The Montana Standard’s story appeared, Wishrock asked commissioners to table its plan in order to give full consideration to Fulton’s proposal.
The council very nearly voted for the tabled plan anyway, but ultimately did not. Then, in a classic fit of pique, the commissioners voted not to allow Fulton to present his plan to them.
It must be said that Fulton’s plan was late arriving. He was out of the country on business from October through December, he said, and therefore missed the county’s deadline. But we applaud Andersen for suggesting that his proposal get a hearing anyway. Those who criticized Andersen for bringing the matter up late, to our thinking, need to be focused more on results than deadlines. When it comes to economic development, a little flexibility can make a big difference.
We also agree with Andersen’s concerns about the Wishrock plan. While Wishrock has had some notable successes, including the redevelopment of the Wilma in Missoula, much of its expertise has been in the area of affordable housing, which does not seem to be the most desirable use for the key Uptown space. Karen Byrnes, the county’s community development director, said Wishrock was looking to market the building for “mixed” uses, but was not certain if affordable housing was part of the company’s plan.
Wishrock’s plan may yet be the best option for Butte-Silver Bow. But now that there’s a “time out” in place, why not hear Fulton’s plan? It seems short-sighted to let irritation stand in the way of what could be an excellent development opportunity.
And the undercurrent of all of this is the role of the commissioners vis a vis the staff. “I do not believe the council is just there as a rubber stamp, and all too often staff treats us just as that,” Andersen said.
We give him points for his candor.