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Helena looking at other options to fund Fire Tower repairs, after not receiving state grant

Helena Fire Tower
Posted at 6:46 PM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-25 12:46:13-04

HELENA — Helena leaders say they’re looking at other options for how to fund repairs to the city’s historic Fire Tower, after the Montana Legislature declined their request for a grant to cover some of the costs.

The city applied for $25,226 through the Historic Preservation Grant program. Lawmakers passed House Bill 12, which appropriated almost $5.5 million for those grants, but the final version of the bill did not include any money for the Fire Tower.

Since the tower was damaged by a suspicious fire in 2016, leaders have been trying to find the best way to move forward with repairing the structure. Helena Parks, Recreation and Open Lands director Kristi Ponozzo said the state grant would have helped them start the work sooner, but that they still have other options for funding the project.

“We’re going to keep looking for grants, but also internal budget that we can potentially put toward that over the next couple of years,” she said.

The original version of HB 12 included funding for the Fire Tower. Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins and Lewis and Clark County Heritage Preservation Officer Pam Attardo testified during the session, asking lawmakers to support their grant application.

However, during the legislative process, that funding was redirected to pay for projects in Dillon, Shelby and Troy. Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, who sponsored the bill, told MTN the Fire Tower was a worthy project, but lawmakers felt the funding should go to other communities. The grant program is funded through an increase in the state tax on hotel rooms and campsites, and much of that revenue is already being used for construction of the Montana Heritage Center in Helena – the expansion of the Montana Historical Society.

The Fire Tower was originally built in 1874. The 2016 fire damaged several of its timbers, and subsequent engineers’ reports showed it needed even more work than initially thought.

Ponozzo said the city’s last report estimated it would take about $180,000 to repair the damaged timbers, but that figure may be too low now, since the price of building materials has increased significantly this year. She said leaders have set aside about $150,000 to use as matching funds when they apply for other grants.

Ponozzo said the tower is relatively stable now, but they need to finish the repairs to make sure it is fully secure and can be preserved well into the future. She said residents should know the city hasn’t forgotten about it.

“It’s lit during the holiday season, which I think is really important for folks,” she said. “It’s such an iconic area, and it’s just an iconic piece in our Helena downtown, and we want to make sure that we preserve it and continue to have access to it and that people can continue to look at it.”

The Historic Preservation Grant program did fund 26 projects across Montana. You can read more about one of the successful recipients, Boulder Hot Springs Inn, Spa and Retreat Center, here.