Downtown progress pleases backers, though challenges linger

Dan Cederberg, a member of the Downtown Business Improvement District’s board of directors, addresses members and partners of the Missoula Downtown Association on Wednesday, where progress and challenges served as the focus of conversation. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Millions of dollars in redevelopment projects coupled with subtle improvements, including way-finding and the successful launch of a fundraising license plate, have backers of downtown Missoula feeling optimistic about the district’s future.

From construction of a new public library and the opening of an art park to plans unfolding in the Riverfront Triangle, the progress stretching across the city’s downtown core may be impossible to overlook.

But as the Missoula Downtown Association and its partners, supporters and members celebrated progress during a meeting with local officials on Wednesday, they also addressed several pressing issues.

Among them, aggressive downtown panhandlers remain a challenge, and plans to launch a study on the future of Higgins Avenue from Brooks Street to Broadway may not be viewed as universally popular, though most agreed a study alone does little harm.

“I’ve been fielding a lot of concerned questions about why we’re looking at shrinking down Higgins to look like Broadway,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association and Business Improvement District. “When we talk about that, we have to remind people that we’re doing a feasibility study. We’re simply looking at whether it’s a viable option or not, and if it’s something the community wants.”

This week, the Transportation Policy Coordinating Committee approved advancing $20,000 toward a $60,000 study of the Higgins Avenue corridor. The City Council will be asked to approve the funding and to contribute around $1.6 million to expand the width of the walkways on the bridge when the state launches its own bridge reconstruction project in 2020.

While the council has yet to vote on the Higgins study, Missoula Mayor John Engen said a closer look is warranted. He believes the stretch of roadway already operates in a three-lane format, even if four lanes are present on the pavement.

“Those two middle lanes are turning lanes all day long,” Engen said, adding that North Higgins Avenue, which is currently two lanes, works well as a street and serves local businesses and the community well.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get there with the remainder of Higgins, but it’s certainly something to think about,” Engen said. “We can’t be afraid to look at alternatives. If we’re afraid to look at alternatives, we’re not getting anywhere.”

Several downtown business owners, including Five on Black owner Tom Snyder, also expressed frustration over aggressive scofflaws, saying their storefronts have been urinated on and some downtown visitors remain fearful when approached by intoxicated panhandlers.

The city has bolstered its downtown police presence to address the issue, though it continues to dominate downtown committee meetings. Several additional efforts are expected to begin this year to better gauge and address the problem.

“We often spend half our meetings discussing whether it’s getting better,” said Dan Cederberg, a member of the Downtown Business Improvement District’s board of directors. “One thing that’s been suggested for a long time is wet housing and a facility for folks to go. We’ve got to keep looking for those small victories.”

Engen said the issue has been around for several decades and offers no easy solution. As it stands, offenders are either placed in jail or sent to the emergency room for costly, yet temporary treatment.

Neither solution is ideal, though long-term fixes will likely cost money.

Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association and Business Improvement District, said millions of dollars in investment, coupled with other projects, have infused the district with optimism. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“There are silver bullets – end poverty, end addiction and end mental illness,” Engen said. “We’re not going to fix this without taking some expensive and significant measures.”

Next week, Engen is heading to Spokane, Washington, to meet with that city’s mayor and local investors about their success in establishing a “housing first” program. The program provides those who suffer from chronic addiction a place to live, improving their chances for treatment.

In the meantime, Engen said, the city remains committed to the downtown district, saying it currently receives the largest concentration of city resources, including policing and public safety.

“We’re dedicated to the place in no small part because we recognize the value of a vibrant downtown,” Engen said. “And I love the smell of tax base in the morning, and that’s happening here all day long. We have an investment here we’re more than willing to protect, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Other projects, including a new student housing facility, plans to convert Front and Main streets to two-way traffic, and redevelopment of the Riverfront Triangle have injected the city’s core with new energy.

The influx of investment and construction is likely to continue.

“We’re really excited about the Riverfront project,” said McCarthy. “It’s an extension of our downtown to the west and the redevelopment of a piece of property that’s been underutilized for three decades now.

“We have about $850 million in investment taking place in our downtown, both in development projects, infrastructure projects and public-private partnerships,” she added. “None of us have seen this much activity in our downtown in probably 30 or more years.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com