By David Tucker Explore Big Sky Contributor
BOZEMAN – On the eve of a public hearing that could influence a major trails and parks decision within Bozeman city limits, concerned residents milled around the Baxter Ballroom on Feb. 12, discussing the Story Mill Community Park Proposal.
While such functions are often attended for the food and drinks, this gathering had a clear purpose. Lively conversations took place at every table and around hor d’oeuvre trays, setting the tone for a series of presentations in overwhelming support of the Story Mill Community Park development. The proposal was approved by Bozeman’s Trails, Open Spaces and Parks Committee the following morning for recommendation to the City Commission.
A large-scale project, Story Mill Community Park would be developed on 54 acres currently owned by the Trust for Public Land. The development would provide opportunities for hiking, biking, running and fishing, among other activities, all within a few miles of downtown Bozeman’s economic center.
Drawing from the $15 million dollar bond passed in November 2012 for trails and parks, the project aims to be “the flagship of [the Bozeman] community park system,” Story Mill Project Manager for TPL Maddy Pope told Explore Big Sky over the phone. Significant for several reasons, the park is a unique opportunity to provide a large open space as the population of Gallatin Valley continues to grow.
At the Baxter function, Deb Love, Northern Rockies Director for TPL, introduced members of the organization’s national leadership, among them Adrian Benepe, Senior Vice President and Director of City Park Development, as well as President and CEO William Rogers. Both gentlemen spoke in support of Story Mill, their presence at the reception an indication of how important this project is to both TPL and the city of Bozeman.
Benepe, who as former New York City Park Commissioner was responsible for urban park developments such as the city’s High Line, stressed the importance of parks for community development.
“You have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create the Central Park of Bozeman,” Benepe said, referring to one of the nation’s oldest and most significant city parks.
Rogers further reinforced the project’s importance, noting Bozeman’s now-famous quality of life. “How do you maintain [Bozeman’s] quality of life?” he asked the audience. His answer: public parks.
Adding to the list of significant national officials, Les AuCoin, a retired nine-term U.S. congressman from Oregon who now serves as TPL’s Story Mill Park Proposal Steering Committee Chairman, was also in attendance to voice his support. He urged those present to “bring nature inside the city limits” by supporting the park and taking the necessary steps to ensure its completion. “You can’t stop development, but you can shape [it],” he said.
Barbara Moore, President of Shape Up America, a national campaign to raise awareness of obesity as a health issue, called the park “an investment in health,” pointing out that 50 percent of strenuous exercise takes place outside. Representatives from Trout Unlimited, Gallatin Valley Farm to School, Sacajawea Audubon, Learning by Nature, and the founder of local shoe company Oboz were some of the diverse constituencies publically supporting approval.
The hearing was so well attended that halfway through, the city fire marshall interrupted to inform the committee that the meeting room was well over capacity.
While more than 20 individuals went on record in support of TPL’s application, committee member Doug Chandler urged his colleagues to be cautious.
Chandler called for stronger oversight and more transparency with regards to the budget and associated cost to the city, which is estimated to be around $4.5 million out of the $15 million bond. $2.65 million would go to purchasing the land, the same amount TPL paid for the property. These numbers are subject to an independent appraisal and could be lower if the property is deemed to be worth less than what TPL paid for it; regardless, the cost to the city will not exceed that $2.65 million figure. The $1.85 million left over would go toward park design, construction and stewardship, and TPL plans to undertake a philanthropic campaign to raise an additional $3.7 million.
Going forward, the committee will proceed with a recommendation to the City Commission, which will meet in March (tentatively on the 24th) to hear testimony concerning the proposal. With this step in the process complete, TPL and its supporters will turn their attention toward the independent appraisal of the property and their presentation for the City Commission.