Downtown Master Plan looks to inform the next chapter in Missoula’s evolution

Downtown Missoula comes to life early Friday morning under a warm spring sun. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Long before the parking attendants began patrolling Missoula’s downtown streets on Friday, construction crews were hard at work adding the siding – brick by brick – to a new hotel and nearby student housing high-rise.

The tables outside the Catalyst began filling with morning diners and the Top Hat prepared for its evening show featuring Shakewell. Later in the day, surfers hit Brennan’s Wave and some took lunch under the spring sun in the city’s new Art Park.

It’s no secret that the downtown district is growing both in size and scope, attracting an unprecedented level of investment and new construction. Along the way, the Downtown Missoula Partnership is assembling a Business Development Committee to consider the district’s future and help inform an anticipated update of the Downtown Master Plan.

“We’re in the process of working on the master plan and getting an update to that,” Pam Udall said Friday morning. “We hope to have a request for proposals done in June and have that out to bid and under contract by September, so we can begin updating our master plan for the next 25-year vision.”

The Downtown Missoula Partnership hired Udall last September as its first ever business development director. As such, it is Udall’s charge to provide business recruitment and retention services and work with developers and property owners to fill vacant spaces.

Udall, a native of Ronan and a University of Montana graduate, returned to Missoula from Austin, Texas, last fall. When she did, she was pleasantly surprised by what she saw – a vibrant, growing city with a promising future.

“Missoula is this amazing community of people who really want to do the right thing for those who live here,” Udall said. “I see this amazing partnership from all these key players who collaborate, work well together and make things happen. They’ve been very intentional.”

That intentionality began to take shape in 2008 when the Downtown Master Plan detailed a number of lofty goals aimed at transforming the district into a vibrant hub complete with retail hot spots, dining and entertainment, new hotels and public transportation.

While times have changed over the past decade and yesterday’s retail anchors have vanished from the urban landscape, backers believe the plan’s goals have seen success on a number of fronts. The city’s follow-through has helped realize an estimated 70 percent of the original vision, gaining buy-in from local businesses and developers along the way.

“One of the big success stories for Missoula is it has been very intentional in its planning,” Udall said. “A lot of cities do master plans, but they sit on the shelf. You look at what’s happening downtown in the last 10 years and it’s very exciting.”

Construction crews place the finishing touches on the new Roam student housing project on Front Street. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

To keep abreast of the changes and address outstanding needs, backers launched a campaign last October to raise $400,000 to complete an update of the Downtown Master Plan.

The new plan is likely to retain several existing goals from the original document while exploring the need for parking, workforce development and ways to nurture the city’s changing economy. Downtown housing, the Caras Park corridor and other goals will also be included.

“People are excited about the master plan,” said Udall. “It’s a positive effort and an intentional effort, and it makes a difference. I’m a Montana native, went to school here, and it’s exciting to come back and see this community and where we are today.”

While the district will continue to evolve, Udall said the plan will work to keep the essence of what makes Missoula unique. She’s also working with the University of Montana to conduct a downtown business inventory.

“We want to create jobs for people to stay here, but we want to do it in a way that keeps the heartbeat of Missoula there,” she said. “They want to keep the river as a main focal point, they want to get the river corridor beautiful, create more entertainment and recreation. It’s all very intentional on a holistic level, and it’s not one dimensional.”