City applies for $500K grant toward Civic Center repair project

The city has applied for a $500,000 grant to help fund repairs to the Civic Center.

The grant through the Montana Department of Commerce’s Montana Historic Preservation Grant program, which was created in the last legislative session.

City staff and members of the City-County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission discussed discussed the project during their March 11 meeting.

Staff has requested the max amount of $500,0000, but the application has to go through the next legislative session so the city won’t find out if they’ve received the funds until summer 2021, according to Kate McCourt, the city-county historic preservation officer.

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For the estimated $5 million Civic Center facade project, the city has to follow the Montana Environmental Policy Act for the project so the HPAC took public comment during their meeting and the city accepted written comment through March 25.

McCourt said the city wasn’t anticipating any environmental issues with the Civic Center project and that it might be exempt from MEPA since it’s repairs to an existing facility and the city has to comply with federal guidelines for historic buildings.

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Tony Houtz, an architect with Cushing Terrell formerly known as CTA Architects Engineers, gave the same presentation he’s given to the city commission about the project during the HPAC meeting and said it’s a gravity bearing system, making the project challenging.

Crews will have to replace panels from the top down, he said.

“It won’t be easy,” Houtz said.

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The plan is to replace the concrete panels that are failing, but the project won’t bring the building up to full seismic code, Houtz said, but there’s an exemption for historic buildings.

There’s no way to build full superstructure behind the panels to anchor it for seismic code, so they’ll stay with the gravity system, he said.

“Pretty big undertaking,” Houtz said.

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HPAC members, and city commissioners, had asked about using lighter materials to lower the costs, but Houtz said lightening the load on the building could cause other significant issues.

The project will maintain the decorative freize at the top of the building and will replicate the panels with the lettering that spells our Civic Center, Houtz said.

Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority and the Downtown Development Partnership, said they love the Civic Center and “we think it should be saved. We think this project should move ahead.”

But, the groups don’t support using tax increment financing funds for the project.

Doney asked HPAC members to tell city commissioners that there are other historic properties in downtown and they could use TIF funds toward improving those buildings.

City staff has indicated that would require a significant change to the city’s TIF program, which can be done, but requires commission action and that TIFs are regulated by state law.

There was no public comment.

City staff had been planning to discuss funding options for the Civic Center at the April 7 commission work session, but those meetings are on hold due to COVID-19 precautions.