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Missoula's Old Sawmill District sees rapid growth since 2015

Old Sawmill District
Silver Park
Oregan Park at Allegiance Field
Posted at 1:14 PM, Mar 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-22 15:32:07-04

MISSOULA - Tagliare recently opened up a second location in the Old Sawmill District, but they’re not the only business to make this move.

Since breaking ground in 2015, the Old Sawmill District has been rapidly developing.

The area now features apartments, student living, office space, and a variety of restaurants.

Co-developers, Ed and Leslie Wetherbee decided to start the project two decades ago, seeing a need to develop the abandoned area.

After the land, located between Orange Street and the Russell Street Bridge, ended its time as a sawmill, the site was abandoned for many years.

Leslie and Ed Wetherbee sit at Cambium Place on March 9, 2023. They say they handpicked the businesses that started the Old Sawmill District to ensure they would flow with their vision.

“It was not a very safe area, there were chain link fences everywhere, abandon buildings...frequently fires," Leslie Wetherbee says.

The area was named a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which meant no one had access, and the trails that ran along the Clark Fork River were interrupted by the fenced-off space.

This changed when the Wetherbees purchased the land.

“It was a big fenced-off area that nobody had access to, so finally we were able to connect the river to the Milwaukee Trail," Ed Wetherbee says.
It would be a while — ten more years— until the couple could finally start building more than the trail system.

"There was a big need for a cleanup effort," Ed says. "The city was moving in this direction, downtown was moving in this direction, so someone needed to come in and do this in order for it to be developable."

After the site was cleaned and ready for use, the couple donated 14.5 acres to the city for Silver Park.

Silver Park
Silver Park is located in close proximity to the Old Sawmill District and connects the rest of Missoula to the area with its trail system near the Clark Fork River.

The first buildings put up were condo apartments — Polleys Square — which were named after the founder of the first lumber mill in the area, back in the early 1900s.

Next came Cambium Place and Sawyer Student Living, with both names inspired by the sawmill's history.

Sawyer was the manager of the sawmill, and cambium is the term for a new layer of growth on the trunk of a tree.

These little details in the Wetherbee's development are meant to pay homage to the area's rich history.

Old Sawmill History Photo
A photo from the Wetherbee's archive of Polley's Mill in Missoula. The mill was located in what is now the Old Sawmill District.

“I really like to honor the past," Ed says. "I think we look for names and designs and branding that kind of celebrates what was here for so long.”

Soon after, the Old Sawmill District became the home to Dog & Bicycle Bakery & Café, a place known for its breakfast, and Boxcar Bistro, a French-inspired, fine-dining restaurant.

The additions made the neighborhood feel more elegant, according to Mark Stanford, the director of operations for Boxcar Bistro and Dog & Bicycle.

“It’s got this kind of refined, elevated feel to it, people enjoy spending time in the complex here," Stanford says.

Mark Stanford sits in Cambium Place on March 9, 2023. He has an extensive background in restaurant design and management and is a fine dining enthusiast and sommelier. He believes the Old Sawmill District brings something special and unique to Missoula.

ATG Cognizant and Edward Jones followed suit and bought office space in the neighborhood. Along with C3 Worklounge, there is an attraction for young professionals.

Leslie says they want to draw a variety of ages and personalities to the district.

“We want it all ages because we feel that’s what really builds a great neighborhood," she says.

With the Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, the river and the trail system leading into the Old Sawmill District, Stanford says many people find they can spend all day in this small community.

“It’s got this really interesting feel that you don’t find anywhere else in Missoula," he says. "And I think for a lot of folks, once they either drive through it, or they’re coming here intentionally, they’re immediately drawn to want to enjoy it a little more.”

Oregan Park at Allegiance Field
Oregan Park at Allegiance Field brings many Missoula Paddleheads baseball fans and concert attendees into the Old Sawmill District.

Cambie Taphouse, and now Tagliare, contribute to the neighborhood's extensive food options, Stanford says, and he isn't surprised why many businesses are enthusiastic to open up a storefront here.

“I think how modern and how elevated this whole area feels, it has that luxury feel, it has that breaking the norm– creating something new, I think that’s very attractive for businesses," he says.

For Linda McCulloch, who has lived in Polleys Square since 2017, life in the Old Sawmill District is exciting and relaxing.

She enjoys the sense of community and friendship between the residents, and the several spaces they have where they can spend time together.

"I mean it’s a great community, it has so many food offerings here so many restaurants to eat at, so much to do, or it’s just you know, it can be a quiet place," she says.

McCulloch has noticed that the people who live in the Old Sawmill District condos are typically older, but they mesh well with the younger generations in the Sawyer Student Living.

In fact, she says they've even had community dinners with the students living there.

“This is really community living at its best, and I think that it works out for all of us here," she says.

Linda McCulloch
Linda McCulloch sits on her condo patio on March 20. 2023. She downsized from a three-story house to a condo at Polley's Square in 2017.

With the natural environment surrounding the Old Sawmill District, the Wetherbees and Stanford work to make their businesses as sustainable as possible.

For example, Box Car Bistro is fully compostable and will add a vegetable garden this summer to be able to create some products in-house.

Currently, they source a lot of their produce through Western Montana Growers Cooperative and meat from the Bitterroot and Flathead valleys.

“We’re always looking for a sustainable approach to food and a local approach to food," Stanford says.

The Wetherbees say they will continue development in the coming years, and say they are excited to provide more jobs and money to Missoula.

Old Sawmill District History Photo
Archive photo of Polley Lumber Compnay employees in 1930.

“Some people would say, you know, you gentrified the area, and I’d say yeah, we probably did," Ed says. "And that’s maybe not a bad thing... When we look at the big picture, we’re generating, with what’s here now, we provide over a million dollars of property tax revenue to the city."

"And that’s all the direct benefit. When you add in all of the indirect benefit, of what a big corporate player and new employees like Cognizant can bring, it’s in the hundreds of millions of dollars of benefit that come to Missoula," he continued.

Ed says that when development is finished, they will contribute $4 million in property tax revenue.

A map of Missoula's Old Sawmill District