A campaign waged via letters threatening legal action against the state if it develops the University of Montana’s South Campus won’t stop school officials from seeking a new location for Missoula College.
The Montana University System remains firm in its position that UM’s South Campus is a viable location for the two-year college, officials said last week.
But UM also is evaluating a second piece of property on East Broadway, saying that site, at a glance, could likely accommodate the construction of a new Missoula College.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever find a spot that everyone agrees on,” said Clayton Christian, the Montana commissioner of higher education. “Balancing the needs of the community with the wants and needs of our students is certainly a priority of ours. I feel this spot on East Broadway is a pretty good alternative.”
UM announced East Broadway as an alternative location for the college on May 16. The announcement came 11 days after Advocates for Missoula’s Future, a local grassroots group, sent a letter to the state threatening a lawsuit if the South Campus location remained on the table.
The timing of that announcement led some to suggest that the university system is relenting to the group’s threat of a legal challenge. But Christian said the East Broadway site has been discussed for months and the timing of this month’s announcement had nothing to do with the letter sent by Advocates and their attorney, Quentin Rhoades.
“We didn’t want to bring the East Broadway site up during the Legislature because there’s still a likelihood that the South Campus will remain a spot we keep looking at,” Christian said. “But we’ve been considering East Broadway for a while. It’s a viable option and it serves our needs as well.”
Like the South Campus, the East Broadway location sits on land owned by the Montana University System. The seven-acre parcel adjoins a designated bus route and offers existing parking. It’s served by sewer and water, and it marks a short walk to UM, as well as downtown Missoula services.
“We like that it’s close to campus, but it’s not on campus,” Christian said. “We don’t want to commingle those. We want them to have their own identity. It’s something even the golf course people have said.”
Advocates for Missoula’s Future set out last year to save the University Golf Course from development. Among the group’s primary arguments has been the need to keep the two-year college separate from UM in order to preserve its identity.
But that argument appeared to take a turn last Tuesday, when the group’s attorney sent a second letter to Christian, asking him to consider placing Missoula College directly on UM’s main campus.
Attorney Rhoades said the suggestion wasn’t to be taken literally. Rather, he said, he intended to express his clients’ belief that the Montana University System has a “credibility problem.”
“We know they’re not going to put Missoula College on the Mountain Campus,” Rhoades said. “But at some point, there’s a question of credibility that arises. We’ve heard these things before.”
Rhoades referred to the minutes of a 2005 Board of Regents meeting in which former UM President George Dennison suggested that the Mountain Campus had room to expand by 40 percent and accommodate 23,000 students.
If classroom space is needed for 2,500 Missoula College students, Rhoades said, the Mountain Campus could easily accommodate them. He said his clients’ primary objective remains saving the University Golf Course from development.
“Their secondary goal is to consider this idea of a two-year college,” Rhoades said. “The Broadway location will have its strengths and weaknesses, but it’s still in too close proximity with the university.
“The university says they want the college near the university. If that’s the case, then why can’t it be right on the university? If you’re earnest in that you want it near the university, but not on the university, well, that’s contradictory too.”
Rhoades said his clients are not being obstructionists by not embracing UM’s suggested alternative location.
“We’re encouraged by the fact they are looking at other options,” Rhoades said. “I don’t want to be unnecessarily confrontational. I would give the university full marks for being responsive to our concerns and willingness to talk.”
The Montana University System has sought legislative funding to build Missoula College for six years. That funding came through this year in House Bill 5, and was made official with Gov. Steve Bullock’s signature on May 6.
The day before, with the bill’s approval imminent, Rhoades sent a letter to the Montana University System, saying he’d been retained by the Advocates and “other interested neighbors,” to file an action to enjoin the construction of Missoula College on the South Campus.
In his letter, Rhoades said the land was acquired by the Alumni Challenge Athletic Field Corporation in 1928 to supply the university with athletic fields for student recreation.
He argued that the state accepted the property deed for a price below fair market value. He said the deed was exchanged on the expressed understanding that the land would be used for student recreation.
“Our position is not based on the language of the deed,” Rhoades said. “It’s based on the original intent of the donors.”
Christian and university system officials disagree. They believe the University Development Corporation — know as the Alumni Challenge Athletic Field Corporation until 1947 — gave the golf course parcel to the university with no deed restrictions.
When it comes to the South Campus, the deed has become the primary point of contention between the two entities.
“Whatever we do and whenever we do it, we’ll do whatever we can to find a common-sense solution for Missoula and the university,” Christian said. “We’ll be sure to follow the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. We just view that deed differently than they do, and we’ll likely assert our right to continue planning there (South Campus) into the future.”
Rhoades said his clients are willing to follow through with their threat of a lawsuit if the South Campus site prevails.
“My directive – if the decision is made to put the college there – is to file a lawsuit,” Rhoades said. “The judicial branches often have to decide what the best idea is and what good ideas are legally permissible.”
Rhoades said Advocates and its board of directors will decide whether to apply for a 501(c)4 status, classifying them as a “social welfare” group and allowing them to participate in politics, so long as politics is not their primary focus.
Rhoades said Advocates currently has no acting president, though its foremost leader is Jack Lyon, one of the group’s mainstays and original organizers.
Lyon said he was pleased with the university’s East Broadway announcement. He also said Advocates had only recently filed its articles of incorporation. Rhoades said he wasn’t free to share them with the public without his clients’ permission.
“Under those articles, the Board of Directors must meet to determine what our response will be,” Lyon said when asked about the East Broadway location. “This has never been a question of golf vs. education, and while I personally applaud the decision to examine other sites, I can only make that observation as an individual, not as a representative of the Advocates.”
Some, however, believe Advocates has driven a wedge between golf and education and is intentionally trying to kill the Missoula College project if the group does not get its way.
“The core of that group is really focused on golf,” Christian said. “That’s the core concern for many of them. The neighborhood impact – the buses and traffic and parking – that’s the concern to a larger audience, and it’s certainly a concern of ours. But I don’t think the golf group shares the broad views of Missoula, from what I’ve heard around the community.”