Commissioners approve change to downtown plan for Civic Center repairs
The City Commission unanimously approved an amendment to the Downtown Urban Renewal Plan to include Civic Center repairs.
Their Oct. 6 action merely updates the downtown plan and does not include any actual approval of funding for the project, contracts or use of tax increment financing dollars, but the plan amendment was needed to specify the Civic Center as a project eligible for downtown TIF funds.
City staff are finalizing the TIF application for the estimated $5.5 million project that the city intends to bond against the TIF district and use TIF funds to pay the annual debt service, leaving funds available for other downtown projects.
Some downtown and business groups have asked the city to consider expanding the TIF program to use those funds to support private development. Staff is looking into it, but has maintained that they believe the state laws governing the program dictate that the funds should be used for public infrastructure and improvements.
Using the TIF funds to finance the Civic Center project will allow the city to fix the historic building without increasing taxes for property owners.
Craig Raymond, city planning director, said he’s scheduled to present the TIF application to the Downtown Development Partnership at the end of October and then the application will likely go to the City Commission consideration in either late November or early December. The city can’t bond till January, according to city officials.
As the commission was set to begin the discussion during the Oct. 6 meeting, City Manager Greg Doyon told commissioners he’d received a text from Chamber of Commerce Director Shane Etzweiler stating that he was having trouble viewing the live stream and asked commissioners to consider delaying the discussion.
Commissioners took a short break so staff could check on the technology. Staff said it appeared to be functioning for at least several people and commissioners decided to proceed with the meeting.
Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority called in to support the amendment to the downtown plan. He was the only person to offer public comment on the change.
In mid-August, the city’s planning board voted to recommend approval of the amendment. On Aug. 26, the Downtown Development Partnership unanimously voted to recommend approval of the change.
In June, City Manager Greg Doyon restricted access to the front of the Civic Center due to public safety concerns.
A piece of the back panel recently became dislodged, triggering the evaluation of other areas around the Civic Center, including “substantial cracking and buckling of the front panels,” according to the city.
As a precaution, the city is installing barricades to protect the public from falling debris.
For years, City Manager Greg Doyon has been talking about the need to repair the Civic Center and his concerns for public safety should the facade fail.
During the June 16 City Commission work session, City Planning Director Craig Raymond said if those panels start to fall off, “that’s a very bad day for the city.”
During that meeting, Raymond and Doyon again walked the commission through the engineering report on the Civic Center and estimated $5.5 million project that would include replacing the roof, which has been an issue for the building for years, and replacing the facade panels that have been failing, creating a potential safety hazard as they continue to deteriorate.
Initially, city officials said they would likely need to send the project to a public vote for a bond, but have since proposed to use funds from the Downtown Tax Increment Financing District to back a revenue bond and pay the debt service.
Some members of the downtown community have been vocal in their opposition to using TIF money for the project since they want to use it to support private development coming in the downtown.
Using TIF funds means there won’t be an additional tax for property owners citywide.
On a $5.5 million revenue bond, city staff estimates the annual debt service would be about $400,000 and said that leaves roughly $900,000 and flexibility for others in the downtown who want to request the use of those funds.
The Civic Center includes the Convention Center and the Mansfield Theater, and Raymond said in August that “it would be a disservice to dismiss the positive effect those facilities have on the downtown.”
“I understand what people are saying when they express reservations about the Civic Center using those funds, but there’s no question in my mind when you look at the statutory language, it actually puts a preference and an emphasis on public infrastructure and facilities,” Raymond said during the DDP meeting. “I don’t think anybody could argue that there isn’t a heavy emphasis on public facilities” in the statute.
Downtown and business groups have asked the city to consider expanding the use of TIF funds to cover costs related to ADA compliance, fire suppression and other interior items for private developers. City staff has said the current city program is not set up to support those requests and believe that the TIF program is focused on public infrastructure, under state law, but that they would further research the matter. Members of the DDP said during their September meeting that they were working on a draft proposal for such an expanded city TIF program.