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Mercantile hearing continues before City Council

By Martin Kidstdon

The Missoula City Council continued to explore an appeal filed by a team of developers seeking a permit to deconstruct the Mercantile on Monday night, a process that has now logged more than 7 hours of discussion, hearings and inquiry.

Developers are looking to deconstruct the vacant downtown property and erect a branded hotel in its place. Both opponents and supporters of the project have weighed in over the past several months, dating back to early spring when the Historic Preservation Commission first took up the issue.

The opinions continued at Monday night’s public hearing before the City Council.

Paige Good of Preserve Historic Missoula maintained hope that certain tax credits and preservation grants might someday become available. She accused developers of not making an honest effort to find alternatives that include preservation while urging the City Council to deny the permit.

“Had there been a truly good faith effort, we’d all be having a very different conversation right now,” said Good. “There are still alternatives. The building could still be redeveloped if incentives were applied.”

But as has been the case since the issue first surfaced, not everyone agreed, including Dudley Dana, a downtown Missoula business owner who has been reluctant to express his opinions on the issue.

Dana has maintained his art gallery on Higgins Avenue for 20 years while 11 other galleries have closed. Had the proposed hotel been constructed to bring additional visitors to the district, he believes some of those galleries would still be open.

“When you’re in business, you’re not supposed to talk politics or religion,” said Dana. “Historic preservation is one thing. Blight preservation is another thing. I know a little about what they’ve been through with the building. It’s not just about getting a tenant, it’s about getting a viable tenant.”

According to information submitted over the past four months, 20 credit worthy parties have considered the property. While the Mercantile was placed under contract on several occasions, the buyers walked away due the cost involved in renovation and difficulty finding tenants.

HomeBase, a Bozeman-based developer, has emerged with a viable $30 million project that includes the financial backing to pull it off. However, preservation advocates are lobbying the council to uphold the permit’s denial.

Others are urging a compromise, though no one has offered the additional funding needed to complete it.

“I believe that a partial demolition is a suitable compromise that would satisfy the developer, those that love the old building and its history,” said David Tyrell. “A combination of the old with a new interior would keep the Merc alive as a landmark structure and set a standard to how much we value our heritage.”

Many of the arguments expressed Monday night have been heard at one point or another over the past several months, with opponents of demolition lobbying for preservation at any cost. Supporters are vying for economic development, jobs and revitalization of the vacant property.

Leslie Schwab, the city’s historic preservation officer, said the property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. It was last occupied in 2010 and has since fallen into a state of disrepair.

After extensive review, the city’s Development Services found that HomeBase had met the criteria needed to secure a demolition permit, including appropriate advertising and making a good-faith effort to find a buyer to preserve the structure.

However, the Historic Preservation Commission, a group of appointed volunteers, disagreed and denied the permit. The City Council next month will either uphold the denial, award the permit or modify the permit as submitted.

The developers have asserted that the preservation commission failed to conduct a process in accordance with fundamental legal requirements, and failed to take action on the permit within the time frame allotted by city ordinance.

They also contend that the preservation commission violated their due process rights.

“We’re going to continue the hearing through July 11,” said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley. “I’ll be sending it back to committee after that meeting, so we won’t be making a decision at that July meeting.”