Montana's top law enforcement agency will soon call Boulder home, but not quite as soon as originally planned: The Montana Highway Patrol's ongoing transition from Helena to the North Campus of the former Montana Developmental Center is expected to be complete by early August, pushed back from late June.
The delay is partially to allow time for the campus' administration building—the centerpiece of the new headquarters—to be updated to meet Federal Bureau of Investigation standards for facilities that handle criminal justice records, according to Special Operations Commander Sgt. Jay Nelson, who is a spokesman for the Highway Patrol. But the agency is also grappling with the same pandemic-related shortages of supplies and labor that plague projects public and private across the country, he said.
"Trying to line up those contractors is pretty tough," Nelson said, adding that much of the work being done to ready the building is cosmetic improvement, including interior painting and new flooring—work that is also affected by the construction crunch. By mid-June, see-through barriers had yet to be installed in a wooden framework built atop the administration building's front counter, and many of the facility's rooms housed debris piles—vestiges of the MDC.
The headquarters will be home to about 25 employees, Nelson said, most of whom are uniformed officers, and some are considering relocating to Boulder.
In spite of the delays, and the mounds of detritus, Highway Patrol leadership is eagerly awaiting the new facility, which Nelson and Col. Steve Lavin, who commands the Highway Patrol, said is a vast improvement from cramped, rented quarters in Helena. Currently, "we’re having to outsource meetings, trainings, things like that," Lavin said. Nelson said that some improvements were as simple as bathrooms: The new administration building has at least five bathrooms with separate men's and women's rooms; the current headquarters has one.
"It’s kind of overwhelmingly exciting. That was one of my major goals, was to get a new headquarters facility," Lavin said. Lavin became the agency's chief administrator at the beginning of this year. "The beauty of the grounds there is pretty amazing."
In a recent walk-through of the facility, Nelson echoed that sentiment, remarking that his future work campus is "a beautiful place."
Far beyond aesthetic beauty, however, Nelson and Lavin pegged the facility's ample storage, vast acreage of open space, and diverse array of highly configurable and versatile buildings as the site's main draw. That, plus, "it truly is, for the most part, turnkey," Nelson said. "Just the office space itself is a huge improvement from what we had."
Nelson and Lavin said that the current headquarters in Helena is surrounded by more than a dozen outdoor storage units housing equipment, supplies and records, and that rent on the facility alone costs $10,000 each month.
The Boulder facility came into Highway Patrol possession on April 12, when Gov. Greg Gianforte transferred the former state institution from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services to the Department of Justice. Montana's Highway Patrol falls under the state DOJ. Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who took office on Jan. 1, previously credited Chief Deputy Attorney General Kris Hansen, a former state representative and senator, with proposing the facility for Highway Patrol use. Hansen was familiar with the MDC's closure from her time in the statehouse, Knudsen said.
Chief among the new facility's advantages is its ability to house Highway Patrol cadet academies and trainings the patrol offers to other agencies statewide. The agency currently conducts academies at a facility in the Helena Valley, Nelson said, and although basic police academies for new officers at the patrol and statewide will remain at that facility, the Highway Patrol's advanced academy, required for its troopers, will move to Boulder.
"All the interworkings that make an academy are here," he said, including housing, athletic facilities, classrooms, equipment storage and a large commercial kitchen. He said that the agency spent $65,000 on housing people in hotels last year—an expense that will be eliminated by the new facility.
Nelson said that the first phase of the move—the transition expected to be complete in August—entails shifting the patrol's headquarters infrastructure to Boulder. That's all of the "overall administration" of the Highway Patrol, he said, including the chief administrator, information technology, agency records, financial administration, equipment and vehicle fleet supply, the department that oversees officer conduct, and accompanying staff. A warehouse and shop adjacent to the administration building will house the agency's "radio shop," which transforms vehicles into patrol cars. The MDC North Campus maintenance staff remained with the facility through the ownership transfer.
In addition to 25 Highway Patrol employees, Nelson said that "you could easily have 50 MHP people here [during an academy], but it could be far more" and could "far exceed" 50 total people during some programs.
Beyond the first phase, Nelson said, the patrol will prepare the campus' residential cottages to house cadets and visiting agencies, and is exploring uses for a large gymnasium with a stage, as well as a currently empty swimming pool.
"There's 37 acres out here—there's a lot of possibilities," he said.
Lavin, the Highway Patrol's chief administrator, said he is exploring eventually constructing a driving course and indoor shooting range on site, the latter of which could cost up to $9 million, in part because of complex ventilation needed for indoor ranges. He said he was hesitant to build an outdoor range because of noise impacts to the surrounding community.
Lavin said he plans to install memorials along the grounds' walking paths that commemorate troopers killed in the line of duty. Depending on facility security, he said, the combination gymnasium-auditorium could potentially host community events beyond official agency functions.
"We’re just thinking about the possibilities. We’re really excited—the community’s been more than welcoming. It’s all been really positive and exciting. I love the small community aspect of it," Lavin said. "We’re hoping we can do whatever we can with the community. It’s just a really exciting deal for us, the community and the state of Montana as a whole."
However, everything beyond the initial administrative move, Nelson said, "all is dependent on funding. This is a work in progress."
Given their current facility challenges, that's more than enough to have a major positive effect on the patrol, Nelson and Lavin said.
"It is exciting," Nelson said. "This is truly going to bring the Montana Highway Patrol and DOJ into the next generation."