Representatives from the Missoula County Weed District & Extension and the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium, along with other community partners, grabbed shovels and garden hoes to ceremoniously break ground on the 29,000-square-foot Rocky Mountain Gardens & Exploration Center Friday at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Expected to open in early 2023, Jackson Construction will begin construction of the center later this month.
The Exploration Center will be the premier center for scientific education and community-centered learning in the Rocky Mountain West and is the first major new building in the fairgrounds’ revitalization efforts. The year-round destination will be home to Montana’s first tropical butterfly house, 2.5 acres of premier education gardens, demonstration kitchens, a greenhouse, plant lab and classrooms. Providing a one-of-a-kind, immersive scientific and cultural experience for people of all ages, the center will draw residents and visitors to Midtown Missoula.
“The Rocky Mountain Gardens & Exploration Center will be an invaluable resource to our community for generations to come,” said Missoula County Commissioner Juanita Vero. “A place of education, exploration and wonderment, teaching people how to understand, respect and cultivate the rich resources throughout our region.”
The project is a public-private partnership years in the making. The Weed District & Extension, Healthy Acres Healthy Communities Foundation (the philanthropic partner of the Weed District & Extension), the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium, and the Missoula Conservation District will share the space and cost of the center. Jerry Marks, Weed District & Extension department head and long-time MSU Extension agent, and Jen and Glenn Marangelo, founders of the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium, have collaborated with their teams since 2018 to solidify their partnership to create a center that will grow hands-on scientific education and connect people to Western Montana’s rural heritage.
The total working estimate of the project is $16 million. Earlier this week, the Missoula Butterfly House & Insectarium and the Healthy Acres Healthy Communities Foundation, both 501c3 organizations, launched the public phase of Join the Buzz, a $5 million capital campaign to help build the Exploration Center and support programs.
“What we’re creating is incredibly important for Missoula, for science and for our understanding of the world around us,” said Doug Emlen, Montana Regents Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Montana and co-chair of the Join the Buzz Campaign. “The Exploration Center will immerse people in an environment where they can truly see how extraordinarily insects and plants go together. It’s going to be the first thing people want to do when they get off the interstate.”
The Missoula Conservation District will also make its home at the Exploration Center and is contributing $250,000 toward construction costs for its office space at the center and has secured funding for a portion of the greenhouse.
More information about the project is available at JoinTheBuzzMissoula.org.