“It’s been a journey:” Mercantile hotel opens with wine, cheers and fanfare

Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, joins Mayor John Engen and others in cutting the ribbon at the new Residence Inn by Marriott in downtown Missoula on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Editor’s note: To see photos of the deconstruction of the old Mercantile to the grand opening, visit our photo gallery by following this link.

On a summer day in 2017, city leaders gathered on a patch of dirt in downtown Missoula for the official groundbreaking for a new hotel. It was a celebratory moment given the prior two years, which saw the project embroiled in controversy.

But that was so yesterday.

On Thursday night, city leaders gathered on the same patch of ground to celebrate the hotel’s official opening. The Residence Inn by Marriott, better known as the Mercantile, opened its doors, and in doing so launched a new chapter in the evolution of downtown Missoula.

“Were you here when Macy’s closed on March 1, 2010?” asked Linda McCarthy. “It was devastating to our downtown. Nine years later, we celebrate bringing life, jobs, commerce, people and vibrancy back to this special location in the heart of our community that’s been at the core of Missoula for over 100 years.”

McCarthy, executive director of the Downtown Missoula Partnership, was there in 2017 when the project broke ground. She also stood before the City Council in prior years to support the development, arguing that it would rejuvenate a dilapidated corner of the downtown district and supply needed jobs.

During Thursday’s soft opening, she took delight in welcoming the finished product, one that will include an array of new restaurants, bars and retail shops come spring.

“It was not an easy process, and not an easy project,” she said. “It’s never easy to do development in a downtown environment. They’ve built something all of us can be proud of. This is a special day.”

The $40 million project, developed by HomeBase out of Bozeman, replaced the old Mercantile building on the corner of Higgins Avenue and Front Street. Those who worked behind the scenes to bring the project to fruition got their moment in the spotlight on Thursday night.

They included Dick Anderson Construction, the Radius Gallery and the design firm JNS. Representatives from Stockman Bank and MoFi, both of which provided financing for the project, stood in attendance, as did members of the City Council and the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

HomeBase developer Andy Holloran celebrates the opening of his new Missoula hotel by thanking members of the community who helped make the project possible. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Andy Holloran, the project’s developer, was also recognized for his “patience, creative generosity and community focus.” In turn, he gave credit where credit was due while toasting the evening’s crowd.

“It’s truly been a journey, and everyone in this room has had something positive to do with this project,” Holloran said. “It’s so gratifying, particularly in a community like Missoula. We love our downtown, and to see something like this come to fruition in such a collaborative manner, is really exciting.”

Construction on the five-story, 177-room hotel officially began on July 10, 2017. By then, at the insistence of the City Council, the project had undergone several design changes.

Foremost among them was the preservation of the historic pharmacy, which now sits tucked into the hotel’s northwestern corner. Against the odds and while unsupported, that portion of the former Mercantile survived a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2017.

As the evening’s guests wandered the hotel, many made their way into that old pharmacy. It now houses the hotel’s presidential suite, an expansive two-story room plush with modern amenities and a sweeping view of Higgins Avenue and the illuminated Florence Building across the street.

“I really like what they’ve done with the historic pieces,” said Emily Bentley. “They really fulfilled their promise to reuse the materials.”

Bentley served on the City Council in 2015 when the project ran into controversy. After the Historic Preservation Commission moved to block the project, the City Council took up many months of hearings and testimony before ultimately granting approval.

While Bentley celebrated the hotel’s opening, the challenges faced in those early years haven’t faded.

“We really focused on having a professional process where everyone was heard,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be here, but there are people who are mourning the loss of the Mercantile. I hope they realize they saved the pharmacy, and they should take credit for that.”

Fran Albrecht joins other guests and partners in the project in a tour of the president’s suite, a two-story room that occupies a portion of the old historic pharmacy. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When the project was unveiled as a mere proposal in 2015, Missoula Mayor John Engen recalled visiting Santa Claus each Christmas in the old Merc. He did so again on Thursday night in an effort to acknowledge the past and celebrate the present.

Holloran credited the mayor for his leadership throughout the process, and for working with HomeBase to bring investment into Missoula. But even the mayor may have underestimated the controversy the project would bring when he brought HomeBase to Missoula.

“We had a conversation and we looked at a map and we looked at opportunities and I said, ‘There’s one spot that’s super easy, a slam dunk. Come to Missoula. Nine months and you’ve got a thing,’ ” he said.

Events wouldn’t play out that way, and while it took five years to finish the project, the mayor joined others in welcoming the Marriott to the downtown district.

“I’m grateful to be in this building and see life and spirit and commerce and smiles and people,” Engen said. “There will be a lot of life in this building for a long, long time to come.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen lauded the project’s positive impacts on downtown Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)