The state of Montana is taking another look at the site of the former Capital Hill Mall as a potential future home of the Montana Heritage Center.
The 2019 Montana Legislature passed a pair of bills that impact Montana’s state museum, currently called the Montana Historical Society and located just east of the Capitol. The first, Senate Bill 338 brought by Sen. Terry Gauthier, R-Helena, is expected to generate about $34 million for construction through increased lodging and use taxes. The second, House Bill 5, which appropriates funding for capital projects, saw a late amendment from Rep. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, requiring the state to analyze the mall site as a potential location for the museum.
The need for a new museum became a biennial topic for lawmakers during the last several sessions. Limited space means the Montana Historical Society can display only a fraction of the state’s collection and inadequate storage conditions have museum officials concerned about properly preserving artifacts.
The location of the state’s museum has also been an ongoing debate for almost two decades. In 2004, then owners of the mall approached the state about sale of the property, and in 2005 the Legislature authorized $7.5 million in bonding with discussion centered on the mall site. The site’s location in Helena with two major streets running by along with proximity to the interstate has been touted as assets for attracting tourism and other businesses.
Then in 2007 consultants and the state architect recommended the museum be constructed through a mix of remodeling the current building along with a new building built across the street and connected by underground tunnel. The proposed cost at the time was significantly higher to buy the mall property, demolish the building and construct a new museum.
Current state officials have continued to prefer construction at the site across the street from the Capitol. Proximity to the Capitol for tourism, concerns over transportation of artifacts and fundraising based in part on that location have been cited as reasons for the renovation and expansion option.
“From our perspective that has not shifted, the Capitol site was determined to be the best and that has not changed,” said Bruce Whittenberg, director of MHS. The Montana Department of Administration is responsible for review of the mall site as required by HB 5, and Whittenberg said he expected the process to be thoughtful and thorough.
Montana History Center, a group founded by former First Lady Betty Babcock and still spearheaded by her daughter, Lorna Kuney, has continued to advocate for the mall site as the best location. A law passed in 2015 names a new Montana History Center after Babcock.
Hamlett brought a bill unsuccessfully during the session that would have allowed the group to fundraise for the mall site before the amendment to HB 5.
“We’ve not given up on that idea,” of the mall site, Kuney said. “But the main thing is we didn’t have the land. We believe it’s the best place in the long run.”
Split ownership between the former mall and the land it sat on posed a major issue in the original analysis. The mall’s construction, which would have mandated asbestos abatement had the state purchased it, also posed significant roadblocks, she said.
Now Kuney believes Helena developer Dick Anderson’s purchase, demolition and redevelopment of the mall site is a game changer that has made the site as viable as ever.
“Fast forward to today when we now have an even better opportunity to achieve this vision,” she wrote in a letter to the Independent Record. “Funding has become available, the mall has been demolished, a through street at Sanders is in the process and the land is being fitted with new gutters and improvements. Best of all, mall acreage is available for state purchase.”
Mark Esponda is vice president at Dick Anderson Construction and said that right now crews are clearing the site following demolition of the mall.
“We don’t have a fully designed plan in place yet,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what to do there and there are a lot of options, so pretty much anything is open. The state is in the process of doing their study of the best location and we’re really not involved in that.”
The state has begun the process to reevaluate the mall site through HB 5, said Department of Administration spokeswoman Amber Conger. So far, the department has contacted property owners to find out about availability and a preliminary square foot cost, which came in at roughly $20-$23 and equating to a total cost for 5.5 acres of $4.8 million to $5.5 million.
Additional steps include analysis of the potential building site and the costs and functionality of a building if it were built there. The department will also take public comment and convene working groups during the analysis. Groups convened during the previous study must be recreated to look at early designs and make final recommendations, Conger said.
The final decision lies with the director, who is currently John Lewis.
Late last month the Lewis and Clark County Commission wrote a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock expressing excitement about the new funding for the Montana Heritage Center. The commission does not have a direct role in picking the site, but Chairman Jim McCormick said they wanted to encourage a dialogue about the museum’s future home.
The letter includes language that appears to support the mall as the commission’s preference.
“While we encourage a thorough investigation into all potential locations and recognize all have their own merits, we currently support locating the Montana Heritage Center at the former Capital Hill Mall site,” the letter says.
But in an interview McCormick emphasized that the intent of the letter was not to promote one site over another.
“My intent and our intent was not endorsing one or any place, we’re saying here it is and let’s have that conversation because it’s a benefit for everyone that comes to Helena and Lewis and Clark County,” he said. “I see tremendous opportunity not only for historic preservation and to display what is Montana, but an economic opportunity for Lewis and Clark County. I think this is an opportunity we only get once.”