Montana Historical Society

The sculpture Herd Bull greets visitors to the Montana Historical Society Museum across the street from the Capitol in Helena in this file photo.

Last spring, lawmakers and Gov. Steve Bullock approved renovation and expansion of the Montana Historical Society's museum and archives in Helena. This project to preserve and publicly exhibit stories of Montana's rich past has been on the drawing board for more than a decade.

The plan pitched by the Historical Society again this year includes renovating the Pioneer Museum across Roberts Street from the beautiful, historic state Capitol, constructing a tunnel under Sixth Avenue and connecting the existing building with a new Montana Heritage Center. The Montana Historical Society has long since outgrown its limited space for state documents, historic artifacts and priceless artwork — all owned by the people of Montana.

The key to success in the 2019 Legislature after so many sessions of failure was a bipartisan funding plan in Senate Bill 338, which includes a 1% increase in the state lodging sales tax from 3% to 4% starting starting on Jan. 1. The lodging and tourism industry supported the plan that will direct 80% of the new proceeds to the Montana Heritage Center project for five years. The new law also sets up an ongoing grant program to assist local museums across Montana, starting with the Moss Mansion in Billings. After five years, most of the 1% lodging tax revenue will go to tourism promotion. (The state presently charges a lodging "use" tax of 4% that is devoted to tourism promotion, plus the 3% sales tax that goes into the general fund, for a total 7% in state lodging taxes.)

The Montana Historical Society is responsible for raising $10 million of the budgeted $52.2 million Heritage Center costs from other sources.

A confusing thing happened in the last days of the Legislature. Another bill, the biennial long-range building bill, directed the Montana Department of Administration "to the fullest extent possible, analyze, negotiate and pursue purchasing" about 9.4 acres that used to be a Helena shopping mall. Charged with evaluating the old mall site as an alternative to the well-planned and carefully budgeted Capitol location, the Department of Administration decided to consider all feasible sites in Helena. The law says the Montana Heritage Center is to be constructed in the Capitol City, but doesn't specify where.

From an initial list of 22 potential sites, a committee appointed by Department of Administration Director John Lewis narrowed the options to five, which were extensively analyzed by independent, professional architects and engineers. The data is clear and convincing: The plan to renovate and expand on state land is by far the best and most affordable.

Relocating to the mall site would cost $90.8 million — compared with $52.2 million budgeted for expanding on the present Capitol site. Likewise, land acquisition and relocation push the costs of the three other sites analyzed to between $81 million and $94 million. Every site besides the present location would require tens of millions more in funding that the project does not have.

The Montana Historical Society and its volunteer board of directors is solidly in favor of the site adjoining the present museum, according to Bruce Whittenberg, executive director of the society.

"Let the data speak for itself," Whittenberg said of the multi-site analyses.

The Montana Heritage Center Building Committee and the Steering Committee were holding their third and final meeting Wednesday before sending the site evaluation report to Lewis. Having fulfilled all requirements of the law, we urge Lewis to move forward immediately with the building of the Montana Heritage Center next door to the state Capitol. Design work for the Capitol site has already been completed and just needs updating before building can commence. For more information on the project, go to heritagecenter.mt.gov.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.