Public meeting is Thursday on repurposing the Rainbow Powerhouse

For roughly the last decade, a small group of people have been working on options for repurposing the Rainbow Powerhouse.

Those efforts are accelerating now since a federal agency has placed a July 2019 deadline on local efforts to have a viable plan in place.

At 7 p.m. Oct. 25, a committee of the Historic Preservation Advisory Commission is hosting an informational meeting in the Gibson Room of the Civic Center on the project.

Construction on the 80-foot wide and 326-foot long powerhouse began in 1909 and was completed in 1910, along with the dam and the power line. Electricity was first transmitted to Butte in 1910, according to a fact sheet from the HPAC.

Around 2008, plans for replacing the hydroelectric facility were beginning and a core group of people started working to find “somebody, some venture interested in reusing the building,” said Tom Micuda, deputy city planning director.

That core group included Peter Jennings, of the Arvon Block project; Ellen Sievert, former city-county historic preservation officer; County Commissioner Jane Weber and Pete Brown of the State Historic Preservation Office, Micuda said.

Others have been involved as well and the powerhouse came offline in 2013 when the new powerhouse became operational. The facility ownership changed from PPL to Northwestern Energy in 2014 and the company commissioned a feasibility study on options for repurposing the powerhouse.

Options for the site are limited since it’s within an active hydroelectric facility, has county road issues and other access issues. The proximity to an active utility plant is the most problematic and the site can’t be used for something that would bring high traffic volume, such as residential, retail, dining and drinking or even a museum, Micuda said.

There have been some discussions about using the powerhouse as a data center, or something that requires little human traffic to and from the site.

Thursday’s meeting isn’t designed as a brainstorming session, given the site’s limitations, but is instead planned to give the community an update on the feasibility study and the efforts to find a new use for the historic building.