It's been about five years since developers took over the abandoned former Champion Sawmill site just west of Ogren Park, hoping to transform it into a mixed-use neighborhood, and it's still a fenced-off clutter of broken concrete and decades-old wood waste. But a new grant marks the beginning of the end of the longer-than-expected environmental cleanup process.
Two weeks ago, the Millsite Revitalization Project (MRP) landed $833,000 from the Missoula Brownfields Cleanup Revolving Loan Fund to address the methane emanating from buried and decaying sawdust. Methane changes the pH of groundwater, explains Chris Behan of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, and at the mill site, that water contains iron and manganese and has seeped into the aquifer. Behan calls unearthing wood waste and otherwise minimizing methane production the "downhill run," since the site's petroleum spills have already been addressed and OK'd by the Department of Environmental Quality.
"It's been frustratingly slow getting the right permissions and getting the state up to speed on how to deal with voluntary cleanups," he says. "That's not something that they traditionally were set up to do; they're much better at it now, because [brownfield cleanups] are going on all over the state."
Once the cleanup is complete, the city will acquire 14.5 of the site's 46 acres for a riverfront park between its baseball field and California Street.
The park is just one component of MRP's grand vision for the blighted ground. Kevin Mytty, president of Shelter West, one of Missoula's largest homebuilders, and Colorado-based developer Ed Wetherbee together form MRP. More than three years ago they laid out plans for a vibrant riverfront neighborhood—called the Old Sawmill District—with as many as 700 residential units and 200,000 square feet of commercial space. The drawn-out environmental cleanup and sinking housing market combined to put their plans on ice, but Wetherbee says the new grant will make a difference:
"Our plan and hope is that by the end of this summer the site will see a very noticeable improvement in terms of its aesthetics, and it will be positioned and prepared for the first infrastructure development to go through the site—and we're pretty excited about that."