By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The committee investigating whether Havre should have a special events center has picked its two favorite spots - the Hill County Fairgrounds and the Montana State University-Northern campus.
But lots more questions - like whether the campus has enough parking and street access and whether saline seep at the fairgrounds would make building there too expensive - have to be answered, committee members agreed.
Some said the fairgrounds site would have better access and better visibility.
"We still have a lot of questions that aren't answered," Debbie Vandeberg, executive director of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce, said Monday at a meeting of the committee and local business people.
The group agreed it needs to have answers to all pros and cons before it tries to sell the idea to the community.
The chamber-driven committee, which also includes representatives of the city and county governments, Montana State University-Northern and the Havre Public Schools, hired Minneapolis-based Creative Sports and Leisure in 2003 to study whether Havre could support an events center similar to MetraPark in Billings or the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls. The study found that Havre could support a 6,000-seat events center.
On Feb. 7, the committee formed a subcommittee to investigate the infrastructure available at six sites examined in the study.
The subcommittee didn't consider locating the center on the university campus because it appeared that the site wouldn't be able to provide adequate access or parking, subcommittee member Craig Tilleman said. Building the center at the Hill County Fairgrounds was the No. 1 choice, followed by a site north of the Havre Middle School.
But by the end of the meeting, after hearing arguments by university officials, the group reached a consensus to continue investigating the fairgrounds and the university as the two best sites.
Tilleman said the fairgrounds site would provide access and visibility from U.S. Highway 2, ample area for parking, and would create a center with ties to the entire county, rather than just Havre.
Fairgrounds manager Tim Solomon said he hasn't presented the idea to the Great Northern Fair Board yet, but he doubts the board would have a problem with it.
"Our fairground does need help," he said.
Chuck Jensen, vice chancellor at Northern, said the same is true at the university.
"We also have a campus in need of improvement," he said.
The main proposal is to build the special events center near the Student Union Building, meaning the SUB's meeting and conference rooms and student food services could be used by activities at the center, Jensen said.
Vandeberg said linking the center to the university food service could reduce support for the project by Havre businesses. Some businesses might want to bid on catering events at the center, she said.
Tilleman said a main concern about a campus location is parking.
The proposed design for the center includes 1,100 parking spaces in a 17-acre site.
Jensen said if the center were located where the hill and lawns northeast of the SUB are, it could hold some 600 to 800 parking spots.
He said if the center were built on campus, he thinks the university could tear down the Armory Gymnasium, which would eliminate deferred maintenance costs and would free up money used to operate the building. That money could possibly be used to help operate the center, he said. The area now holding the gym could also be used for more parking, he said.
He admitted that the university location would not provide the visibility of a Highway 2 site, but said it would provide other benefits. Having the center on campus could bring students to tournaments on campus, who then might decide to come to college here.
"The university is a big economic driver in the community. We don't want the committee to forget that or overlook that," Jensen said.
Jensen and others at the meeting agreed that if the university site is selected, something will have to be done to address concerns that the center would turn into a university facility and that other groups would be shortchanged.
"There would have to be a complete understanding what the facility is for - a community center," Jensen said.
Steven Chvilicek said he has been talking to landowners in the county who could end up with a significant tax increase if the center is funded locally. He said the people he has talked to seem willing to pay the taxes, as long as they have a feeling of ownership in the center. Locating it on the fairgrounds would do that, he said.
Jensen said people in Hill County should have the same feeling of ownership if it is located on campus - the university is the county's university, he said.
Hill County Commissioner Kathy Bessette said some questions about the fairgrounds need to be answered before any decision can be made. The fairgrounds have a significant drainage and saline seep problem, and how that would impact construction needs to be determined, she said.
"I wouldn't even look at the fairgrounds until you know the cost of dealing with saline seep," she said.
The committee decided to continue investigating, including having the university study exactly how the center could be built on campus and what parking would be available, and how the saline seep at the fairgrounds would affect the center. The committee will meet again in March.
The committee also said it will continue to investigate potential private and public funding that could help pay for the building and its operation.
Chuck Wimmer of Stockman Bank said the committee should be prospecting major hotel chains to see if they would be interested in naming rights on the building. That could translate into millions of dollars for the project, he said.
Tilleman said the committee should eventually look into private donors, also possibly with naming rights involved.
Bear Paw Development Corp. executive director Paul Tuss said private developers who are interested in building hotels here in conjunction with the center have said they are only interested in building hotels near Highway 2. He said that does not necessarily mean that the events center would have to be built near Highway 2 next to the hotel.
The study said having a hotel adjacent to or near the center would provide the highest benefits to the center and to the community.
Tuss said there are many potential sources of money such as the Community Development Block Grant program or grants through the federal Economic Development Administration that could help reduce the cost to the community. He said he would have a list of potential sources at the next committee meeting, scheduled for March 7 at 10 a.m. at U.S. Bank.