Children’s Museum eyeing city parkland for new facility

The Children’s Museum of Montana has been looking for a new location and has approached the city about potentially using parkland to build a new museum site.

During the June 10 Park and Recreation Advisory Board meeting, the museum’s director Sherrie Neff said “instead of just replacing what we’ve got,” they’re looking to create a new facility that meets the community’s needs.

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The museum is currently in a city-owned building. In January, the City Commission approved another five years for the lease at the same $1 annual rent.

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The museum has leased the space since September 1997, according to city records, and on Dec. 2, 2003, the commission approved at 15-year lease that included an automatic five-year renewal. The original lease required the museum to pay all utility costs, maintenance and repairs of the building and its systems.

Last summer, the museum launched a $3.5 million fundraising campaign to purchase, renovate and relocate to a new building.

During the June 10 meeting, Park and Recreation Director Steve Herrig said the city manager had asked staff to look at potential locations and staff has compiled a list of potential options.

That list includes:

  • Morony Park
  • Riverview Park
  • Carter Park
  • Madison Park
  • West Side Kiwanis Park
  • Skyline Property, next to Skyline Elementary, it’s city-owned property that is not designated as parkland

Neff told the park board she was requesting review of the Riverview Park site, but the board and staff discussion indicated they would take a closer look at each potential property and develop lists of pros and cons.

Neff said knowing what the city wouldn’t entertain as potential sites would also be helpful.

Neff brought architect Sophia Sparklin with her to the meeting and they said they are ideally looking for about five acres for the new museum.

Sparklin said the selected site would drive much of the design.

“This is meant to be designed in conjunction with a park,” Sparklin said. “Four years is very short to get a facility open.”

Herrig said he would hesitate to use Carter Park since it’s the only park in that area of town and “it would leave a big void.”

The process to lease or sell parkland is not a quick turn around and would require City Commission action, including at least four of the five members to vote in support to be approved.

“We know it will take time,” Neff said, “but we didn’t want to set our sights on something you won’t consider.”

Based on Monday’s discussion, Neff said she wouldn’t request Carter or Madison.

Sparklin said she had more questions about Morony Park, where the Natatorium is located. That pool was closed at the end of 2018 and will be demolished. Natural springs are on the site and have caused significant structural problems for the pool facility that was built there.

The site was donated and multiple city officials have said in multiple public meetings that it must be used for recreational activities.

During master plan processes, several underutilized park properties have been identified over the years and there have been some discussions of selling parkland in the past but the community reaction was generally negative and those proposals didn’t gain much traction. A small portion of parkland was recently sold to a neighboring property so that he could add an elevator to the back of his building.

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Staff asked the park board members to think about the possibility of working with the museum, visit the parks discussed on Monday and develop some pros and cons so they can revisit the discussion at their July meeting.

Over the years, city departments have been running out of space in the Civic Center and the Municipal Court has been asking for a second judge to help handle the heavy case load. With another judge comes the need for additional courtroom space, which is currently unavailable in the building. In several meetings, the legal staff has discussed the need for more staff and more space. Currently, the legal department is spread in various offices throughout the Civic Center.

The planning department is also spread on various levels of the building.

The city retained the services of an architect to rework space in the Gibson Room and renovate the office areas for the legal and human resources departments.

Commissioners rejected use of the Gibson Room and “there are no other areas within the building that could be feasibly renovated without encroaching into the Gibson or Missouri Rooms or the Convention Center,” according to the staff report.

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The building currently occupied by CMOM “is needed to provide additional office space for city administration. Use of the building makes sense because the city already owns it and it is located adjacent to the city’s administrative center/campus,” according to the staff report. Use of the building “also allows the city to address space needs without additional encroachment of other commonly used areas in the Civic Center and eliminates the need to build an addition.”