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Next month, a committee of Montanans will meet to start designing a better home for our state's history and documents. The Montana Heritage Center project is finally underway at the best site.

An exhaustive study of 22 potential sites in Helena, as required by the 2019 Legislature, clearly showed that state-owned property across Roberts Street from the the Montana Capitol is the most appropriate and cost-effective location for expanding the state's official museum and archives. When Department of Administration Director John Lewis announced the selection on Dec. 12, Gov. Steve Bullock voiced approval of the process, saying in a press release:

“Montanans deserve a space that thoroughly exhibits our rich history and affords future generations the opportunity to learn what makes our state such a unique, captivating and celebrated place. I appreciate the hard work and public input that went into selecting the location and I couldn’t be more pleased that we are closer than ever to a Heritage Center worthy of our heritage.”

The 6th and Robert site was selected based on a comprehensive report prepared by Cushing Terrill (CT), formerly CTA Architects. The Building Committee submitted a report to Director Lewis in late November summarizing their analysis for the most suitable location.

“There were many considerations, but the most responsible use of taxpayer dollars provided by the 2019 Legislature was to take advantage of existing state resources by renovation the current building and connecting it to a new facility on the Capitol Campus.” Lewis said.

Locating the new Heritage Center on the Capitol Complex aligns it with the vision set forth in the Capitol Complex Master Plan, according to the Department of Administration. This plan includes increased parking, improved walkability, and more green space. Placing the new Heritage Center here will make it easier for visitors to experience both Montana’s Museum and the Capitol together. In addition, legislators, educators/students, and the general public will be able to better utilize the space for meetings, trainings, and other gatherings. As the site Evaluation Report found, the 6th and Roberts location will provide more parking than other options and allow for future expansion.

For all of us who visit Helena, expanding the Montana Historical Society facility at its present site means easier access for citizens who come to the Capitol for the Legislature or other state business. It means that busloads of students on field trips to the Capitol can walk less than a block between the Capitol and the new Montana Heritage Center.

The location allows the state to continue using the Pioneer Building that now houses the museum and archives and some of the artifacts that are too numerous to store in the present space. Preliminary plans call for a tunnel under Sixth Street to connect the old and new parts of the Heritage Center. The tunnel will allow historical items to be moved easily within the center and may provide additional museum exhibit space.

Along with more space, the new construction and renovation will provide a safer environment for priceless artwork that belongs to the people of Montana, including an extensive collection of work by Charles M. Russell. The present basement storage area has been prone to leaks, flooding and is without the ideal climate controls for fine art and fragile artifacts.

The Montana Legislature first appropriated some funds to start the Heritage Center project in 2005. In 2019, a bipartisan group of legislators and Bullock finally succeeded in winning approval for funding that along with private funds is expected to complete the project so long sought by those who value Montanan's history and heritage.

Public meetings were integral“From the public commentary we received during this process, we understand that there was great concern about the visibility, access, and parking of the new Heritage Center.

As the site Evaluation Report found, the 6th and Roberts location will provide more parking than other options and allow for future expansion,” said Lewis.

The Historical Society’s mission to promote understanding and appreciation of Montana’s cultural heritage is best fulfilled by working alongside the Heritage Center. The archives and artifacts housed within MHS must be continually referenced by the Heritage Center staff. A split campus also means that invaluable artifacts would need to be transported between two locations, increasing the risk of damage and destruction. Furthermore, the Veterans and Pioneers Memorial Building was intended to house MHS and serve as a “perpetual memorial” to Montana’s history. Moving the Society away from this building would violate 22-3-302, MCA and require a change in statute.

Three public meetings were held October 11, November 1, and November 20, 2019 to ensure the process was thorough, transparent, and included the opportunity for public input. Additionally, the Department created the website heritagecenter.mt.gov to inform stakeholders of the process and to allow for submission of public comment.

The building committee is now tasked with moving the project into the design phase and will have the first meeting January 2020.

Director Lewis will consider input from all parties as the design process moves forward. The design phase is expected to last 12-18 months and is comprised of a detailed analysis for the Heritage Center needs for the space, creating requirements and finalizing building plans.

The committees will continue to report to Director Lewis throughout the Heritage Center project.

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.

Information and updates, including upcoming meetings, will be posted online throughout the project at heritagecenter.mt.gov. The website includes information broken out under four major categories, “Select, Design, Build, and Explore.”

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