The plans for a $100 million redevelopment along the Hip Strip remain uncertain after the group designing the buildings canceled a public meeting, saying the project should not be finalized after a controversy over one of the developer’s online messages.
Yet developer Aaron Wagner said the project will continue to move forward without the local firm.
“They have not even been awarded the project yet,” Wagner told the Kaimin. “We are still moving forward, nothing is being stopped or even delayed.”
WGM Group, the Montana-based engineering firm, released a Dec. 2 statement canceling a design input meeting with members of the public and developing partner Cole Bergquist. The company’s reason: Wagner’s insulting messages on Instagram, and outcry from locals opposing his involvement in the project.
“Now is not the time to review planning details,” the statement said. “It’s time to reassess how the community comes together to support our neighbors through a community project.”
Though WGM canceled its meeting, the land has already been purchased by Wagner, his brother Jadon Wagner and Bergquist. Missoula’s city council approved the rezoning of the property in October to mixed commercial and residential use, with a 125-foot height limit.
The development would replace the Missoulian building along the south bank of the Clark Fork River with high-end condominiums and commercial space on the first floor.
Wagner released an Instagram post in November with some renderings of what the new condos would look like, sparking backlash from Missoulians concerned with the lack of affordability of the project. Wagner responded to some comments from the post with insulting messages.
“I paid $10 million for the land… more than your life and soul is worth,” said one response obtained by the Kaimin. “So here’s a little tip… fuck off and get a life.”
Wagner has since apologized for the comments, telling the Missoulian his actions were “immature and childish.” He added that his comments are the likely reason WGM canceled the design meeting.
Without the local firm, Wagner said he would likely contract with another group from out of town.
“They felt the heat and were apprehensive about the relationship with me personally,” Wagner said. “What I tell people is, ‘Look, you guys want locals, but the pressure against me is doing the opposite.’ Now we are going to have an outside group that might not understand the goals and needs of the community.”
WGM is currently working with Bergquist on the Reed Condo project, located just a few blocks east of the Missoulian lot.
A Nov. 30 column from city council members Bryan von Lossberg, Gwen Jones, Stacie Anderson, Mirtha Becerra and Amber Sherrill said there is little the government can do to regulate the development.
“Under Montana state law, we cannot condition rezones,” the councilors wrote. “In other words, we cannot approve a rezone based on a building design or the individual developer. To be clear, council did not vote on a development. When privately owned property is being sold to another private owner, council lacks the legal authority to control the development.”
“We have no legal power to demand an affordable housing component,” the column finished. “To do more for affordable housing, we need federal and state support. And that is the next conversation for our community to have.”
The Kaimin reached out to WGM to ask whether the company had completelypulled out of the development. A spokesperson said the company stands by the original statement, which listed Bergquist as a client for the company.
WGM said the Missoulian will continue to operate in the sold building through March 2022.
Request for comment from Bergquist had not been answered by press time.