MISSOULA — Despite the pandemic and its economic toll, downtown Missoula saw twice as many new businesses open than close in 2020, and it saw tens of millions of dollars in new private investment.
It also saw a number of proposals identified in the new Downtown Master Plan begin, including a capital campaign for improvements to Caras Park, a study of downtown alleys, and the makings of a new heritage trail focused on the area’s history.
The first anchor medallion marking the trail was set outside the Missoula Public Library, and others will follow outside the Missoula Art Museum, the Zootown Arts and Community Center, and Caras Park.
“They’re entry points to the heritage trail,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership. “That will be a trail people can walk on their own or with a guided tour.”
As she does every year, McCarthy this week offered an update of the Downtown Master Plan implementation process. The plan lays out a 20-year vision for the downtown district, from future housing and business opportunities to ways to enhance the area.
A number of goals identified in the plan are now underway, such as the engineering design for the conversion of Front and Main streets to two-way traffic and improvements to Caras Park.
McCarthy said work on the park will begin this fall while the Higgins Avenue bridge remains under construction. Timing the work with the bridge project will save funding later.
“We’ve got a number of projects underway, and we’re doing some fundraising to implement some of those projects,” McCarthy said, saying the green hill in the park will be flattened this fall. “If we pull the funds together, we’ll redevelop the amphitheater seating.”
The plan also calls for the enhancement and use of various downtown alleys. McCarthy said 44 alleys have been inventoried and identified for possible improvements. Other cities have found ways to transform their alleys into public places.
“They a big underutilized public asset,” said McCarthy. “We’ll start working on how we start doing some alley activation projects. We have about four alleys we’ve identified as top alleys. There’s some amazing ideas out there.”
While a number of projects get underway, downtown businesses managed to hold their ground during the pandemic. McCarthy said 21 new businesses opened in the district while 10 closed in 2020.
Only one of those closures was pandemic-related, McCarthy said.
“The vacancy rate, with the federal building excluded, is still under 5%,” she said. “Some of our businesses, like food and beverage and retail, are a little more vulnerable. If it weren’t for the CARES Act funding, I think our vacancy rate would be much higher.”
The strength of the district continues to attract new investment, including commercial projects. The $21 million AC Hotel opened earlier this year and nearly $9 million in additions to the Wren hotel will be completed in the coming months.
That project will bring four new retail spaces to Pattee Street, including Black Coffee Roasters and a men’s clothing store. And while needs for new and additional lodging in the downtown area have been met, the push for more housing continues.
Over the last 12 years, around 4,500 residential units have been built in the Downtown Master Plan study area, McCarthy said. A number of housing projects are currently under construction while others have been put on hold for the time being.
That includes previous plans for the Riverfront Triangle and the old downtown library site, which is set for future redevelopment. The visioning process for the library block will have to wait.
“There is sentiment that we ought to wait until the pandemic is over before we roll out another visioning process for this block,” McCarthy said. “We would anticipate that would probably happen this fall.”
Downtown advocates, along with city and county government, continue to push for a residential-level cleanup of the downtown railyard owned by Burlington Northern. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality has recommended an industrial cleanup, though the Downtown Master Plan calls for housing.
Both the city and county have submitted comments to the agency, as have area organizations. Legislators representing the Missoula area also have submitted a bipartisan letter of support urging a residential cleanup.
“Housing is a part of that downtown vision,” said City Council president Bryan von Lossberg. “Housing is one of those critical needs identified in the plan and in the update and we’ll continue to advocate for it.”