People fighting to keep the Emerson Lawn as a public park in downtown Bozeman for enjoying music, picnics and the arts won a key victory Monday over private developers hoping to build townhouses or condos.

The Bozeman School Board voted 7-0 to take steps toward selling the former school playground to the nonprofit Emerson Center for the Arts & Culture. The Emerson Center had offered to pay $100 more than whatever two competing private developers offered.

The vote gives the Emerson Center until 1 p.m. Wednesday to sign the school district’s counter-offer, which commits the nonprofit to pay $2,275,100 by June 1.

If the Emerson fails to meet Wednesday afternoon’s signing deadline, then school officials are authorized to accept an offer from AV MT1 and Intrinsik Architecture for $2,275,000, an offer that expires at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

Heide Arneson, School Board vice chair, said she appreciated the work by all three bidders for the property, adding she felt overwhelmed by the community support for the Emerson. Calling the decision a “win-win,” Arneson said, “For all those who stepped up to make it happen, I’m very, very grateful.”

Susan Denson-Guy, the Emerson’s executive director, who led the charge to raise more than $2 million in a few weeks, said after the vote that she felt “awesome.”

“Bozeman is amazing – it’s given us the opportunity to save a gem for our kids, for our grandkids,” she said. “It is truly a community effort.”

Close to 150 donors contributed, giving anything from $15 to $1 million, Denson-Guy said. She declined to name her biggest benefactors.

“We have the $2,275,100 fully committed,” she said.

She said the Emerson Center is still raising money to realize its vision of turning the flat lawn into a showcase for the arts, with a semi-permanent stage for performances, a plaza for food trucks, an extension of its sculpture garden and a grassy place for people to visit with neighbors.

“We’ve still got lots of work to do,” she told one supporter.

Dr. Colette Kirchhoff, one of about 20 Emerson supporters who showed up for the School Board’s decision, said nearly 300 letters were written to the board and 97 percent favored keeping the Emerson lawn as public green space, rather than selling it for residential construction. Kirchhoff said she was disappointed that so much money had to be raised to keep the lawn in public hands, but added, “I’m pleased we’ll have a patch of green as Bozeman keeps getting bigger and denser.”

Steve Johnson, deputy superintendent, was asked before the vote if it’s legal for the Emerson Center to submit a proposal saying that it would pay $2 million, but would raise its offer to beat any bid from its competitors by $100. Johnson said he had checked with Lynda White, the school district’s longtime attorney, and she assured him it was legal.

Right after the vote, Denson-Guy hugged Jim Syth of Bridger Builders, the third bidder for the property.

School officials want to sell the Emerson Lawn to raise $2 million so they can ask voters in the May 8 school election to OK buying land for two future school sites – without having to ask voters for any money or tax hikes to pay for them. They expect a new school will be needed in the next two or three years as Bozeman’s student population continues to grow.

When the School Board first sought bids, all three offers fell below the $2.275 million appraisal, so the three bidders were given a Feb. 5 deadline to submit their last, best offers.

The Emerson Lawn is less than one acre, west of the Emerson Center, bounded by Babcock Street and South Fourth Avenue. People have called it one of the last undeveloped sites downtown.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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