Children’s Museum considering county site for future home

The Children’s Museum of Montana is in discussions with Cascade County about the possible use of the Stray Moose property in the Black Eagle area on the former smelter site.

Museum leadership met with Cascade County Commissioners and county staff during a Nov. 9 meeting to discuss the issues and questions related to the potential use of the property that would need to be addressed before commissioners could discuss whether they wanted to pursue the possibility.

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The building is owned by Stray Moose Productions, which is a Phil Faccenda company, but the 4.6 acres of land the building is located on is owned by the county under and agreement with the former Atlantic Richfield Company, ARCO, as part of the Superfund site arrangement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Children’s Museum is currently in a building on the Civic Center complex, located just behind the Mansfield Center, that is owned by the city and the museum’s lease is set to expire in November 2023.

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There have been no formal discussions about renewing or extending that lease, according to city officials, but they have been exploring options for acquiring additional office space. Commissioners have not requested any information about the museum lease, according to Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson.

In 2018, when the lease was extended for five years, City Manager Greg Doyon said it would be his recommendation to reclaim the space it already owns for city offices.

During the Nov. 9 meeting, Commissioner Joe Briggs said they weren’t discussing whether to pursue using the Stray Moose property for the museum, but rather to outline the process and the questions that needed to be addressed.

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He said there were limitations on the use of the property under the agreement between the county and ARCO for the transfer of land to the county. Stray Moose has a long-term lease on the property for the building it owns.

One of the first issues, that county officials said they would look into regardless, is the zoning on the property, which is currently open space and the current property is a nonconforming use.

Charity Yonker, county planning director, said the property could be rezoned to mixed use, which is an adjacent zoning so they wouldn’t have a spot zoning issue.

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Rezoning the property would take three to six months to work through the public process, Yonker said.

Carey Ann Haight, deputy county attorney, said that she received documentation from ARCO outlining the arrangement between the company and the county and at the time there were joint city-county zoning regulations in place and the document requires compliance with those regulations that were dissolved in 2005.

She said that would be an issue in changing the use of the property.

Sandy Johnson of the City-County Health Department said there would be issues because the property is part of an EPA superfund site.

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She said the conveyance agreement specified the property could only be used as a park, open space or commercial.

Changing the zoning or use of the property could affect cleanup levels, Johnson said.

Haight said that ARCO would have to agree to any changes to the land use.

The property is in the OU2 area of the superfund site, which Johnson said is further away from cleanup, but there are options to ask EPA to transfer it to the OU1 area, which is currently under remediation.

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The group discussed the possibility of a lease for the museum, but commissioners and museum representatives said they had concerns about that since it would essentially put them in the same situation as they are now under a city lease.

The museum could purchase the land, but that would require a public sale process and “you might not win that bid,” Briggs said.

Briggs asked Haight to look into whether a lease to own scenario would be an option for the museum. He said the idea bothered him since it’s a way around state law, but when they sold the old county shops it was under a structured payment plan.

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A lease or sale would be a public process and Haight said commissioners would need to pass a resolution on how to dispose of the property.

Commissioner Don Ryan said that he attended two meetings in Black Eagle last week and during one, a citizen was opposed to the idea, but people were more receptive at the second meeting.

Commissioners said they’d also have to coordinate with the Montana Department of Transportation on whether a traffic study or road improvements would be required since Smelter Avenue is a state owned road.

Other questions the county is looking into is whether the property is on the Black Eagle water and sewer system if changes would be required for a more intensive use of the property.

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Sherrie Neff, the museum’s director, told commissioners that they get about 20,000 visitors annually and are open six days a week.

Neff said the Stray Moose property was perfect for their museum plans and their construction team estimates it would take six to eight months for the renovation.

She said that if the county did pursue using the property for the museum, she’d ask the city for a lease extension until they could move into the Stray Moose building.

The museum had a buy-sell with Pacific Steel for the location on 3rd Street Northwest but that was no longer in place in 2021. Neff said at the time that COVID-19 slowed their fundraising efforts.

Briggs said they also wanted to leave room for future museum  expansion.

Ryan said that the city-county Historic Preservation Advisory Commission is looking into funding to restore the nearby Boston Barn and perhaps those projects could be coordinated for parking improvements.