City gets grant to study multipurpose center


The state has given Havre a leg up to study whether a center to host a variety of events would be a good investment.

The Montana Department of Commerce awarded Havre $15,000 from its Community Development Block Grant program to pay for a feasibility study on building a multipurpose center in Havre, which could host events like sports tournaments, trade shows, plays and concerts.

The Havre City Council in April approved using $20,000 from a city fund normally used to provide loans to low-income people to fix their homes, also funded by the CDBG program, to make the required local match and help pay for the study.

Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said Tuesday the next step will be to advertise a request for proposals from people or firms to do the study.

"I'm hopeful that by this time next year we will be able to have a final report, with any luck," he said. "Then it will be in the hands of the local policy-makers as to what to do with it."

The city of Havre has considered building a multipurpose center, similar to the Metra in Billings or Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls, for decades. Last year a committee of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce initiated applying for a $1 million federal grant to pay for the study and initial planning costs.

Brent Reber of the Havre Credit Bureau, who is on the Chamber subcommittee studying the possibility of a multipurpose study, said the war in Iraq put the federal feasibility study funding request on the back burner in Congress, along with many other funding requests. He said he is excited about the state grant.

"I hope it leads to something good," he said today.

Tuss said hosting events could bring a lot of new money to the area.

"Those kinds of events really have a ripple effect on the local economy," he said.

The request for proposals to study the center's feasibility will need to "cast the net fairly wide" to attract qualified consultants, Tuss said.

"The next big step is really to identify a consultant or a firm with the expertise to handle the feasibility study," he said.

Reber said members of the Chamber subcommittee have been doing some research on that. The subcommittee members have contacted firms that have done feasibility studies about multipurpose centers for other communities, he said.

The Chamber won't go into the study with preconceived notions about location or ownership, he said. Part of the purpose of the study will be to determine the best location, ownership, size and style for the center, as well as determining whether it's something the community would benefit from, he said.

"We've decided to keep it open and let the feasibility study guide us," Reber said.

Tuss said whether a center should even be built will be a key component of the study.

"(It will be) a break-even analysis - does this make sense economically?" he said. "Can a city with the size and economy of Havre really afford a multipurpose center?"

David Ray, head coach of Montana State University-Northern's wrestling team, said he is doubtful a multipurpose center would work.

Northern is hosting the NAIA national wrestling tournament for the third year in a row - at the Bison Fieldhouse in Great Falls. But Ray said even if Havre had a building to house the event, he doubts he could host it in Havre.

"It wouldn't help me up here at all," he said today.

There aren't enough hotel rooms to hold the 2,000 people who come to the wrestling tournament, Ray said, and if more hotels were built, they wouldn't have enough business to stay open when events aren't here.

There are other problems, he added, like the time and expense schools would have in driving from the Great Falls International Airport to Havre, and finding the 150 volunteers he gets for the tournament in Great Falls.

There's also the expense of building and maintaining a center, Ray said. A large center proposed at the university 12 years ago would have cost about $10 million to build, and that doesn't cover annual maintenance and repairs, he said.

The center management probably wouldn't be able to charge much for renting it, Ray said, because it would be competing with facilities in Shelby and other towns that bid on events.

But, he said, he is waiting to see what the study reveals.

"If the community wants it, I'll support it," he said.

Reber said he is confident a center could be very busy. Havre has been unable to host events in the past because of the lack of a location like the proposed center, he said.

Besides the national wrestling championships Northern has hosted in Great Falls, Havre High School hosted a Class A high school divisional basketball tournament in Great Falls because of the lack of facilities in Havre.

The Chamber is looking to attract more than sporting events, he added.

"We want this to be an all-inclusive facility. We don't want this to be a quote-unquote sports facility," he said.

The center could be used for theater productions by Montana Actors' Theatre, for hosting Northern Showcase productions, for hosting agricultural or other trade shows, and other events, Reber said.

Organizations would probably rent the center from whatever group ended up controlling it, he said.

Tuss said the next step would be finding funding to complete planning, design and construction. Grants and other funding sources are available for projects like the center, but there would have to be some kind of local buy-in on the project, he said.

That buy-in could include a local bond levy, he said.

"But that's certainly not for me to determine. That's for local elected officials to decide when the time comes," Tuss added.

Many local groups and organizations already have been involved in the discussion, Tuss said, including Havre Public Schools, Montana State University-Northern, Montana Actors' Theatre, and the county and city governments as well as the Chamber.

"All of those entities are stakeholders and need to be involved in the next step, which is how to finance this thing," he said.


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