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Reservations Over Preservation in Downtown Missoula
Reservations Over Preservation in Downtown Missoula

We are going to need to update a historic site from the Next Exit History database. The 140 year-old Missoula Mercantile Building, an icon in the heart of downtown Missoula, Montana, will soon be “deconstructed” – well, actually, demolished.

In its place, will rise a five-story Marriott Residence Hotel. Homebase Montana hopes to complete the demolition of the Missoula Mercantile and construction of the new hotel by 2018.

Missoulians are sharply divided over the developer’s plans. Having been the retail cornerstone of this mountain city since 1877, in the past few decade, the store has struggled, first as a Bon Marche, then as a Macy’s, finally closing for good in 2010. Since then, various groups have looked to remodel the building and retain its importance to the historic downtown. But time has taken its toll, and many townsfolk, including civic leaders, now feel it is time to embrace a new “anchor” at the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street.
The city’s preservation community, including the Historic Preservation Commission, felt otherwise and has sought to save and repurpose the structure. Using the powers of the little-known 2010 Historic Preservation Ordinance, the Commission rejected the developer’s demolition petition. The matter then moved to the City Council where, supported by Missoula’s mayor, the council granted the petition with some conditions. The developer took it to district court where, after months of delay, the court rejected the plaintiff’s complaint, ruling that the developers had met the conditions for a demolition permit.
Few of the parties in this unpleasant tale feel vindicated. While the Missoula Mercantile has undoubtedly suffered from neglect through the years, many city residents have fond memories of its place in the community’s history. Those concerned with maintaining a vibrant downtown will look to the new hotel as a way of attracting visitors to the heart of Missoula. Preservationists are admittedly less than sanguine about the loss of this pivotal building and it has created divisions in what should be a unified vision of the place of history in Missoula’s cultural fabric.

But there is a lesson in this story. That lesson is that for historic preservation to succeed it must be seen as a valid tool for economic development – one that encourages heritage tourism. It’s not enough to draw on our historical conscience or our memories of what the community once reflected, to pass an ordinance, or have a yearly awards ceremony. Preservationists must regularly show the fiscal benefits of structural rehabilitation of old, and often costly historic structures. They need to engage with developers and city officials on a consistent basis to lay the groundwork for new development. If historic preservation is to have a viable future, those who see its potential for preserving the unique cultural and historic character of our downtowns need to be present and active in the daily routine of city affairs. Only then can an appreciation for the importance of history to a city’s economy be truly reflected in policy.

In the meantime, we will soon update the Missoula Mercantile entry in Next Exit History.

Alan Newell is managing partner of Three21 Innovations, LLC, the developer of Next Exit Historytm. He was founder of Historical Research Associates, Inc. and past president of the National Council on Public History. Alan also has been active in Missoula’s downtown, having developed a multi-story building there and having served as a trustee on the Missoula Downtown Business Improvement District. He currently serves on the board of the Missoula Downtown Foundation.