Expo Park improvement project might be on November ballot

The effort to put Expo Park improvements to the November ballot is continuing.

On Monday, the Tourism Business Improvement District approved $65,000 in funding to the Great Falls Area Lodging Association to help cover the cost of staffing related to a ballot education effort.
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The lodging association is also planning to contract with Strategies 360, a regional firm with a Helena office, to develop a multi-phase ballot education campaign.

The campaign is an estimated $200,000, according to discussion at the TBID meeting and would include an initial research phase for an estimated $35,000, to determine if the Expo Park project would be successful on the November ballot.
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What specifically would be supported on the ballot is also being researched, such as would people be supportive at various cost levels.

The TBID worked with Conventions, Sports and Leisure International to develop an improvement plan at Expo Park that has an estimated $86 million price tag.
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TBID staff and Bill Kreuger, the CSL consultant, presented the plan to Cascade County Commissioners in late November and Rebecca Engum, Great Falls Montana Tourism director, told the TBID board on Monday that commissioners seemed generally supportive of sending it to the ballot based on the results of the research.

Commissioners also wanted a cost estimate on moving the livestock zone to the northeast quadrant of the Expo Park grounds, which was not included in the CSL proposal since the consultants deemed it less cost-effective than the plan they presented to the public in late November.

Commissioner Joe Briggs told The Electric that commissioners “expressed our thanks for the efforts thus far and all thought that various parts of the plan were worthy of consideration.”

But commissioners also want more public involvement, which Engum said is part of the plan in moving the project forward.

During the commissioners meeting with tourism officials, Briggs said “we also talked about the need for public input into the proposal before a date was set for the election. We have concerns that too few of the members of the public at large have had a chance to review the proposal at this point. Moving forward without a good public discussion is not in anyone’s best interest.”
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Since the county doesn’t have the funding required to make the major improvement suggested by TBID’s years of research, the project would have to go to a public vote as a tax levy.

The lodging association also requested $120,000 to help cover the cost of the contract with Strategies 360 in the event they aren’t able to raise the funds through industry partners.

The TBID board opted to table that vote until the first phase of research was completed and would provide the $80,000 in funding they’d committed toward the effort in 2015 but hadn’t yet appropriated.

Engum said the request was to give the lodging association a safety net in case they weren’t able to raise the funds privately, but said that while she’s supportive of sending the project to the ballot, if industry partners can’t raise the funds to cover costs related to the ballot education campaign then they’d have a hard time getting community support for the levy.