City Commission approves portion of TIF request for downtown project, funds for wayfinding project
City Commissioners voted 5-0 during their Sept. 1 meeting to approve up to $25,440 in tax increment financing funds for the owners of the Metropolitan Building at 313-315 Central Avenue for reconstruction of the public sidewalk and vault along Central.
The applicant, Keith Cron, had requested a total of $132,392 for that work, as well as the installation of a fire suppression system and interior demolition work, but staff and the city’s outside bond/TIF counsel did not recommend funding that portion of the request under the current city and state guidelines for TIF funds.
Tax increment financing districts are designated areas of the city where the base taxes on properties go into the general fund, but the tax revenue generated by improvements to properties in the district go into a fund that is used to fund public improvements in the district with the idea of spurring development.
When a district expires, those funds go back into the general fund. If the district wasn’t in place, those funds would be in the general fund.
Several downtown property owners and organizations have asked the city to consider expanding the use of TIF funds for the development of private property, but staff has said they believe that will require further research and an overhaul of the city’s existing TIF program.
“It’s not a small tweak,” said Craig Raymond, city planning director, “I don’t think it should be underestimated how significant that could be.”
He said that staff intends to do the research and present a plan for what such a program might look like but that it would take at least four months to go through the city’s process.
But until a new plan is developed and approved by the City Commission, Raymond said staff intends to stick with the review criteria included in resolutions adopted by the commission and guidance from the downtown plans.
The Business Improvement District, Downtown Great Falls Association, Downtown Development Partnership and Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce all spoke in favor of the entire TIF request.
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority spoke in support and said that support would help make such projects more viable.
He said that the legislative intent of the TIF laws were to encourage private enterprise and that “we believe that Great Falls needs to be more aggressive,” in its use of TIF funds to support private development.
Mayor Bob Kelly said the city’s approach to TIFs has historically been conservative and that it’s painful to watch other communities push the envelope more than Great Falls.
But, he said the commission has established criteria and will follow that until staff can further explore options to expand the program.
Kelly said that the city will look at expanding the program but there may be additional costs or administrative capacities that the city doesn’t have to do so.
“We want our downtown to be as vibrant as anyone’s,” Kelly said, but that the process needs to be fair and equitable.
Commissioner Mary Moe said that many commissioners were interested in pushing the envelope but needed to make sure to think through the implications of expanding the program.
Commissioner Tracy Houck said she was frustrated with having the resources in the downtown TIF but being uncertain of whether they could distribute the money.
Commissioner Owen Robinson said he wanted staff to find out more about how other cities were using TIF funds for private development since “the last thing I want is to have a problem in the Legislature and suddenly the TIF program weakens. And that’s what could happen if the legislative people conclude that we’re not using TIF in the way that it was intended.”
Raymond said that there are other requirements associated with receiving TIF funds, such as the public procurement process, competitive bid process and prevailing wage issues, among other requirements. He said that since TIF funds are released on a reimbursement basis, staff waits until those requirements are verified before releasing funds.
If those things aren’t done appropriately, it can render a project ineligible for reimbursement regardless of whether the commission had approved the use of funds, Raymond said.
Commissioners also voted 5-0 to approve a request for $5,050 from the West Bank Urban Renewal TIF District for the Explore Great Falls Wayfinding Plan.
The city-wide wayfinding plan is being developed by the Business Improvement District in cooperation with the Downtown Development Partnership and the City of Great Falls.
The plan will draw and direct residents and visitors passing through the area to explore amenities, attractions and businesses within the community, according to the downtown groups. It will connect pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles with downtown and adjacent destinations and local amenities.
That funding is being used to cover a shortfall in other funding for the $66,550 contract for development of the plan. The cost doesn’t include fabrication of signs, construction or placement of signs.
In February, the Great Falls Business Improvement District on behalf of the Downtown Development Partnership received a $15,000 grant from the Department of Commerce’s Montana Main Street Program for development of the wayfinding plan.
The Main Street grant funding is coupled with $25,000 that the city earmarked in 2017 from the downtown TIF district toward wayfinding.
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority and DDP member said that the Business Improvement District, Tourism Business Improvement District and DDP contributed $6,500 each toward the project. The Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce and GFDA each contributed $1,000.
That left the groups $5,050 short of the total cost.
The BID is an accredited member of the Montana Main Street program and is a nationally recognized Main Street America member. The BID and DDP with the City of Great Falls, released a request for proposals in October 2019 and selected Cushing Terrell, formerly known as CTA Architects Engineers, for the project.
During the April 22 DDP meeting, Nicole Olmstead from Cushing Terrell told the group that the main focus was to create a clear and consistent signage plan to get visitors moving throughout the community.
Olmstead said the team was anticipating the project would take six to seven months.
Then they’ll create the base map as a guiding document on the placement of signage, but Olmstead said they don’t foresee getting into exact sign locations.
In late summer, Olmstead they’d get into the design phase with general themes, collecting comments, making adjustments and presenting the final plan.
“At the end of this, you guys will have a great plan that can be implemented through time in a way that makes sense to the community,” Olmstead said.
According to the RFP that was released in 2019, the city will provide grant administration and the BID will provide oversight of the project.
The downtown organizations and the city have been discussing options for wayfinding plans for years but have had little success in securing a grant for the project so far. Officials and downtown groups have often said they’d prefer to develop an organized plan for the downtown area, or the entire city, versus piecemealing signage for things like parking.
“The need for a wayfinding plan in Great Falls stems from the challenges the city faces with connecting pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles with downtown Great Falls and adjacent destinations including the River’s Edge Trail, city parks and other community attractions,” according to the RFP. “To that end, the city intends to develop signage oriented to pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles.”