New Life for Helena’s Independent Building

A $6.5 million revitalization of a cornerstone building in Helena’s downtown area secured financing last week. After sitting vacant and in need of remediation for several years on one of the main corridors into downtown, the former Independent Record newspaper building at 317 Cruse Ave. was designated for redevelopment by the City of Helena. The new building, rebranded as The Independent, will have two floors and a rooftop deck for a brewery, office space, a restaurant and a retail tenant, bringing a vibrant mix of activity that is expected to catalyze additional improvements in the downtown area. Financing came together through a combination of owner investment, a loan from Valley Bank of Helena and the federal New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) program from the community development lender MoFi. The project highlights the power of the NMTC program to attract private investment and create jobs in economically underserved communities. Construction, which began in 2020, is expected to be complete in summer 2021.

“Small businesses are the backbone of Montana’s communities, and this project will bring more jobs and growth into downtown Helena,” said U.S. Senator Jon Tester. “I’m grateful for MoFi’s work to secure the New Markets Tax Credit to ensure this project has the critical funding it needs to be successful and I look forward to seeing the completed project once it’s finished.”

“This project, which was financed in part using the New Market Tax Credit, will benefit the entire community by helping revitalize business in downtown Helena. Thank you MoFi for helping to make this project possible and create Montana jobs. I will continue fighting to make the New Markets Tax Credit permanent, so that projects like this can be completed in Helena and other cities throughout Montana well into the future,” said U.S. Senator Steve Daines.

MoFi President Dave Glaser said the project aligns perfectly with the NMTC program’s goals. “The vacant Independent building is situated in one of Helena’s most historic neighborhoods, and the revitalization project will help breathe new life into the property and surrounding downtown area,” he said. “New Markets Tax Credits have played a catalytic role in creating jobs and promoting economic vitality in communities across Montana. The positive impact of NMTC would not have been possible without the support of Senators Tester and Daines, who are both longtime supporters of the program.”

MoFi identifies NMTC projects based on factors including job creation, job quality, the provision of services in low-income communities and alignment with local development priorities. MoFi sells the tax credits to investors, typically banks, and puts the proceeds from the sale into the project, providing about 20% of the total costs. The projects that MoFi supports would not have been able to move forward without the tax credit. Valley Bank of Helena has agreed to purchase the New Markets Tax Credits for the Helena project and will provide the debt financing.

The building is being developed by a collaborative ownership group made of principals from Mosaic Architecture, Julius Lehrkind Brewing and Cadius Partners.

The anchor tenant for The Independent is Ascension Brewery, operated by Julius Lehrkind Brewing, which will have a taproom on the first floor and will use the rooftop deck seasonally. The first floor will also have a restaurant space that Montago Coffee Co. will move into, a small retail tenant and a community commercial kitchen that can be leased by food trucks and others. The second floor will have commercial office space for Mosaic Architecture and co-working/community space operated by The SideCar.

“This project wouldn’t have happened without the New Markets Tax Credit program,” said Ben Tintinger of Mosaic Architecture. “Our firm has studied this property at least three separate times for previous clients, but none could get to a point where it seemed feasible. We knew this building had great potential – the infrastructure, the bones of the building, the history, the downtown location and the connection to the community are all aspects that we felt would make this a success. We’re extremely grateful for the program helping to make this project a reality, and we’re very excited to relocate our offices to the second floor with its incredible views and daylit spaces.”

“The project team has put together an exciting concept for the former Independent Record building,” said Lee Ricks, Senior Vice President at Valley Bank of Helena. “We’re happy to play a part in helping the team bring a great mix of commercial, community and retail activity to Helena’s historic downtown area.

The NMTC program was enacted in 2000, as part of a bipartisan effort to spur private investment and economic growth in low-income and rural communities that lack access to the capital needed to support businesses, create jobs and sustain healthy economies. The credits are awarded annually through a competitive process; to date, MoFi has received nearly $631 million in New Markets Tax Credits.

The program has remained thanks to incremental, short-term extensions and is currently in the first year of a five-year extension that was signed by President Donald Trump in December 2020. Recently, members of Congress introduced the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) Extension Act of 2021, which would permanently extend the credit. Senators Tester and Daines have been longtime supporters of permanency, illustrating the bipartisan appeal of the program.

Since 2009, MoFi has financed 30 projects across Montana with NMTC, totaling over $312 million in value, and creating and retaining nearly 2,500 permanent jobs. In Helena, NMTC has been used to help several catalytic projects in the downtown area, most recently, the rehab of the Helena Armory and Old State Warehouse in 2017. Additional projects have been completed in Billings, Bozeman, Browning, Butte, Great Falls, Havre, Kalispell, Missoula, Polson and Poplar.

MoFi is actively looking at projects for its most recent NMTC allocation, which will be invested in qualified areas of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Communities, businesses and nonprofits that have projects of at least $5 million with a gap in financing are encouraged to contact MoFi at 844-728-9234 or mofi.org to see if they qualify.

Image via Mosaic Architecture