An existing building in Whitehall was chosen as the potential site for a pilot Western Legacy Center by the Jefferson County Commission.
The 6,000 square foot building, located near the I-90 interchange, is currently occupied by the USDA and the Jefferson County Weed District.
The site was chosen out of five possibilities, with the other four being in Boulder.
The main reasons for choosing the Whitehall site was that the county could utilize an existing building, as well as its proximity to I-90.
The selection, made by two of the three Commissioners — Leonard Wortman and Bob Mullen — received a mixed response at the Oct. 6 meeting. Commissioner Cory Kirsch was not present, as he was attending a Basin Water and Sewer District Board meeting.
The project has evolved after the closing of the Montana Development Center in Boulder and was originally intended to directly benefit the city by being located near the I-15 interchange. It was seen as a tool to pull some of the estimated five million motorists traveling along the interstate into the city and to enhance economic development.
However, land ownership issues, as well as the need to construct a new facility, likely paid for through a bond, were the main reasons the Boulder sites were not chosen. The Whitehall site was also a late-comer to the project after a public meeting in June failed to generate positive support in the Boulder community.
The four Boulder sites included the I-15 interchange, North Main Street across from Town Pump, along Highway 69 at the Bull Mountain Volunteer Fire Department and the Jefferson County fairgrounds.
The Western Legacy Center is seen as a way to celebrate western culture, particularly that of cowboys and cowgirls, and would include a retail center that could draw on work created by Montana, and ideally, Jefferson County, entrepreneurs and artisans.
Ben Tintinger, principal architect with Mosaic Architecture, said his firm had looked at the building in Whitehall.
“It is feasible to essentially gut the building and remodel it … and add a section that looks like a Western Legacy Center,” he said.
Boulder City Council President Drew Dawson was supportive of the Whitehall site.
The Whitehall site will allow for a pilot program without a big investment by Jefferson County, but still provide economic benefits for the entire county through the gift shop, as well as providing a vehicle to advertise other attractions in the county, he said.
“It is a wiser way to go,” said Dawson.
Boulder resident Carellen Nix disagreed.
This project was to help Boulder and it’s not evident how putting it in Whitehall will do that, she said, adding that she favored the site along North Main Street and across from Town Pump.
If the pilot facility is created in Whitehall, it will likely stay there, she said, adding, “Boulder has always been the red-headed stepchild in the county.”
Boulder resident Christina Binkowski agreed with Nix.
If it is put in Whitehall, how will it benefit Boulder, and vice versa, she asked.
Boulder and Whitehall are nearly 40 miles apart along Highway 69.
Boulder resident Jan Anderson said the city already has a venue for local artisans at The Gift Box on Main Street, and places already exist to distribute literature on other Jefferson County and Boulder amenities.
There are not enough facts or support for moving forward with this project, she said.
The next phase of the project includes a feasibility study to see if the facility would actually work financially, said Harrington.
Jefferson County Planner LaDana Hintz said that perhaps this isn’t the time to proceed with this project as there are other pressing needs in the county, such as roads and emergency services, that the Commission will have to go to the taxpayers to pay for.
During this year’s budget season, the Commission indicated that the next fiscal year may be difficult as revenue streams have decreased over the years — and this year it relied heavily on federal Cares Act funding to balance the budget.
Nick Hensley of Whitehall was also concerned, and compared the project to the ongoing operation of Yellowstone National Park, which has had its good and bad years.
“Build it and they will come doesn’t always work,” he said.
Commission Chairman Leonard Wortman, who has been an outspoken advocate of the Western Legacy Center concept, remained optimistic.
Wortman said the gift shop would provide a showcase for local businesses, and perhaps this could tie into the future reuse of the Montana Development Center property, as the Veterans Administration is interested in putting in a pain management clinic there.
The VA uses equine therapy as part of its program and perhaps that could be the connection to the Western Legacy Center in Boulder, he said.
“I think we need to get something kicked loose,” said Wortman, adding that getting the Legacy Center up and running in Whitehall with an existing building is something that can be done rather quickly.
Commissioner Bob Mullen said that the big “marquee” item for Boulder is making progress on reusing the MDC campus.
The Montana Development Center closed in 2018 and since then, Jefferson County has been working with the state to transfer the land out of its existing trust status with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation over to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which will then determine its future use. The trust land designation transfer is currently awaiting a decision by the state Land Board.