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A site being eyed in Whitehall for the proposed Western Legacy Center earned fewer stars than three of the four proposed sites in Boulder — based on a rating system devised for site selection by contractors conducting the study. 

And more supporters of a potential Boulder site spoke out at a presentation than those from Whitehall, where the meeting was held Aug. 25.

The possible Whitehall site — the current USDA building near the I-90 interchange — has some challenges, according to Jefferson Local Development Corporation Project Coordinator Tom Harrington, who provided an overview of the concept so far.

The Whitehall site is under two acres, with six to eight acres being the targeted size, said Harrington.

That means parking would be limited, and the building itself would require “extensive remodeling” to turn it into a museum and retail space, he said.

The criteria used to evaluate the different sites included the size of the property, its access, context to the project and presence, the available infrastructure, as well as the cost of the property itself, along with site development, roads, parking and utilities.

The Western Legacy Center was originally conceived as a way to boost economic development in Boulder after the closing of the Montana Development Center. The possible sites in Boulder include property near the Jefferson County Fairgrounds, property off Cattle Drive Road, at the Boulder I-15 interchange and off North Main Street across from Town Pump, with the latter earning the most criteria-based stars, at 28.

The Whitehall site earned 21 stars, the same amount as the I-15 interchange location in Boulder.

The Fairgrounds site earned 24 stars and the Cattle Drive Road came in at 27.

The more starts the better, said Harrington.

Whitehall Mayor Mary Hensleigh offered her support of locating the center in the town at the meeting, and Harrington said the Jefferson Valley Museum and Whitehall Chamber of Commerce had previously indicated their support for a Whitehall location.

Gyle and Carellen Nix of Boulder traveled to Whitehall to advocate for keeping the center in Boulder, while Sally Buckles and Kevin Campion, also of Boulder, participated via Zoom and also wanted the center located in Boulder.

“The Western Legacy Center will be an anchor for Boulder,” said Gyle Nix, who is also a member of the Boulder City Council.

Whitehall residents at the meeting were more skeptical.

Bill Gillespie was concerned about how the center would be paid for — both to build and operate.

How many people have to come through the door to keep the lights on, he asked.

Gerry Keogh said he was familiar with a similar facility in North Dakota, and the one used by the county as an model for the Legacy Center.

The Center of Western Heritage and Cultures in Medora is one of several other venues and attractions in town and is not a stand-alone facility, which provides more opportunity for visitors, said Keogh.

The Whitehall site was added after a June public hearing in Boulder. The next step is for Mosaic and Great West Engineering to provide a feasibility analysis — that is, whether the facility could be self-supporting or not. If it is determined that it can be self-supporting, the project will move into the design phase, said Harrington.

County Commissioner Leonard Wortman, who has so far been the main champion of the project, said that unless it is determined that the Legacy Center can be self-supporting, it will not move forward.

“There is no intention of using tax money on it. It’s our intent for it to be self-supporting,” said Wortman at the Whitehall meeting.

During the June meeting in Boulder, however, Wortman said that the county would likely need to issue a bond to pay for construction of the Legacy Center, if a new building is needed — a move that would require voter approval. If the facility failed to generate enough revenue, the debt service would likely fall back on taxpayers, Wortman said in June.

The next step is for the consultants to make a site recommendation to the county.

The Western Legacy Center is designed to celebrate western culture, particularly that of cowboys and cowgirls and would include a retail component. The county had set aside $50,000 to conduct the preliminary architectural and engineering report.

Other ongoing projects

•The Boulder Planning Board recommended approval of the Boulder River Trail Master Plan and Feasibility Study after a public hearing Aug. 24. The study moves on to the City Council for consideration at its Sept. 21 meeting.

The Boulder trails plan, one of a suite of projects stemming from the Boulder Development Fund — a pot of money provided to the city by the state after the closing of the Montana Development Center — maps out a series of possible trails and sidewalks throughout the city and is designed to increase connectivity and attract visitors to Boulder.

•The Jefferson County Commission approved a resolution supporting the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority after a public hearing Aug. 25 in Whitehall. Jefferson County is one of 12 counties expected to sign onto the resolution, which would allow for the creation of a governing structure to begin the needed leg work for the project, as well as borrow money and issue bonds, according to the joint resolution. The plan is to create a passenger rail line to complement the existing Empire Builder route that runs along the northern tier of Montana.

Wortman announced on Thursday, Sept. 10 during a Community Transition Advisory Committee meeting that Whitehall Mayor Mary Hensleigh will be appointed to the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority Board.

“She likes trains,” said Wortman.

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