By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
The Missoula Chamber of Commerce became the latest membership organization this week to place its support behind redevelopment of the Mercantile property, saying the location has great bearing on city commerce.
Sam Sill, director of government affairs for the Missoula Chamber, said the board of directors voted unanimously to support a proposal submitted by HomeBase, a Montana developer, to deconstruct the Mercantile and put the property back into use as a center of commerce and activity.
“We definitely understand the Mercantile is a big part of Missoula’s history,” Sill said. “But it has been vacant for six years. Many folks have explored doing different things with that property, but nothing has seen success. Our community desperately needs that location to be a source of commerce again.”
The chamber board reached its decision after attending several presentations by HomeBase on its proposal to deconstruct the Mercantile and construct a new $30 million hotel with ground-floor retail on the property.
Sill said the chamber also surveyed 1,563 people in the community, including its members, asking if the mercantile should be deconstructed “to make way for new businesses to use the site.” He said 86 percent of respondents were in support and 14 percent were opposed.
“Because the Mercantile is a sensitive issue, we wanted to see how our membership felt,” Sill said. “It’s time to move on, but the way we move on is important, too. We’ve encouraged the developers to incorporate the historic elements where they can. We want to see good urban design that make sense for that location.”
Earlier this month, the Missoula Downtown Association also placed its support behind the proposed redevelopment of the Mercantile property. While efforts have been made to save the building over the past several years, the organization said, none have succeeded.
MDA said the proposed hotel project fits with the city’s Downtown Master Plan. The organization also believes the HomeBase project will revitalize the block and add new energy to the city’s core. Surrounding business owners have also voice support for the project.
“The denigration of the (Mercantile) has been a terrible eyesore that is negatively impacting downtown Missoula in a variety of ways,” the MDA said in its letter of support. “Given the deterioration of the Mercantile building over the course of the last six years, MDA is grateful for the opportunity to redevelop that site into a thriving destination in downtown Missoula.”
The Missoula Historic Preservation Commission has heard from both sides of the debate in recent months. Opponents of redevelopment have taken to social media in an attempt to block redevelopment, though their effort has not netted the funding needed to purchase the property.
An organization formed to “Save the Merc” has also launched a fundraising campaign to pay for legal counsel specializing in real estate law. As of Thursday, the fundraiser had netted $2,000.
“We want the Mercantile to remain representative of Missoula,” the fundraising campaign states. “It is a symbol of the businesses that built the city, yes, but it is more importantly a symbol of opportunity for the next generation of entrepreneurs and investors.”
The preservation commission was set to vote on the HomeBase application to deconstruct the property at its last meeting. After four hours of testimony, however, the commission postponed the decision to next month.
“The chamber supports a healthy environment for business and we support commerce,” Sill said. “The location has great bearing on commerce in our city.”