Gov. Steve Bullock got a big “thank you” Tuesday from Montana State University students and staff for his years of support for Romney Hall’s renovation, which finally succeeded with the Legislature’s approval of $25 million this year.

“Surprise!” about 100 people shouted when Bullock stepped onto the building’s third floor, where a large banner read, “Thank you, Gov. Bullock.”

“This is one of our hero buildings,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado.

Cruzado said a lot of people asked her why not just tear the old building down, but it has a lot of emotional connections for generations of Montanans. She marveled that Romney was built in 1922 by Montana workmen who had no heavy machinery and did all the work by hand.

She thanked the governor for supporting renovation money in the Legislature in the 2013, 2015, 2017 and 2019 sessions.

Bullock said at times lawmakers offered to pass his big infrastructure bill if he would “just drop Romney Hall.”

A century from now kids will be learning in the building, he said, adding that credit should go to the “dogged determination of President Cruzado.”

Taylor Blossom, student president, handed Bullock an original brick from the building, with a plaque thanking Bullock for “giving new life to Romney Hall to benefit generations of students.”

“We battled for 10 years to get funding for this and we couldn’t have gotten it without the support of the governor,” Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman and chief lobbyist, said before the governor’s arrival.

“If the governor doesn’t put a project of this size in the budget, it doesn’t stand a chance. And I know he was leaned on heavily to cut us loose.”

After trying and failing in four sessions of the Legislature, MSU finally persuaded lawmakers this year to pass $25 million for the project. They required the university to raise another $7 million. Cruzado said MSU is “very close” to raising the $7 million.

Demolition work began in August inside the 97-year-old brick building, the original campus gym, so it can be transformed into a modern classroom building.

On Tuesday visitors could see the entire basement was gutted, and interior walls ripped out on upper floors.

When the makeover is finished, Romney is expected to have enough classrooms to teach 1,000 students every hour. It will offer larger spaces for its veterans center, and writing and math tutoring centers. It will also get an elevator and other improvements to make it accessible to people in wheelchairs for the first time.

MSU argued it needs more classrooms because it has grown into Montana’s largest campus, with 16,766 students this fall, the second highest in its history.

Cruzado has said that when the renovation is complete, Romney Hall will benefit nearly every MSU student “for generations to come.” Instead of having a “marginally useable building” in the center of campus with just four classrooms, it will now have 19 classrooms, she said.

Grant Street, an important street through campus, has been closed since August so it can be used by heavy construction vehicles and storage of construction materials.

CTA Architects Engineers drew up plans for the renovation and Swank Enterprises is the general contractor. The project is slated to be completed by January 2022.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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