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County considers food trucks, programs on courthouse lawn in hopes of ‘welcoming place’

Missoula County unveiled a draft plan on Thursday detailing some early concepts intended to “change the culture” around the traditional activities that take place on the courthouse lawn. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

With an eye on keeping its current occupants in place while expanding its uses to a wider audience, Missoula County may bring new additions to the courthouse lawn, including food trucks, summer programming and sanitary improvements.

The county unveiled a draft plan on Thursday detailing some early concepts intended to “change the culture” around the traditional activities that take place on the courthouse lawn.

That includes coaxing downtown employees outside on warm summer days for lunch and other programming. At the same time, the county isn’t looking to displace the primary occupants of the courthouse lawn, who have long been members of the homeless population.

“What I see nearly every day when the weather is good enough to sit outside is a lot of folks congregated on the corner of Ryman and Pine streets,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “A lot of them are staying at the Poverello or are otherwise unshelterd, and they stay and hang out on the space because it’s safe, there’s access to public bathrooms, and you can get on the bus and get somewhere easily.”

Slotnick believes the traditional congregants are well behaved for the most part but admitted that many downtown visitors give the homeless “a wide birth” when passing by. He said it was unfortunate given the welcoming green space outside the courthouse.

“We have this large chunk of public space in the middle of a very vibrant downtown that’s unused because it only has one cultural flavor to it,” he said. “What we’re hoping to do is add uses without displacing any uses to this space to make it more broadly appealing to the public.”

Emily Brock, director of the Missoula County Fairgrounds, participated in a team charged with transforming the courthouse law into a more welcoming place, one that goes beyond court proceedings and homeless gatherings.

Brock said many ideas are still taking shape.

“Maybe eventually it will be a smooth operation that doesn’t need any help from staff,” she said. “But for now it needs to be managed.”

Calling it low-hanging fruit, the county this summer will address sanitation and management as it looks to provide tables and food on the courthouse lawn several days a week. Food trucks would park on the lawn Mondays and Thursdays to sell their goods.

Brock said the goal is to get downtown employees, including those at the country, outside on sunny days to enjoy lunch on the lawn. That will require the county to provide power to the food trucks from the courthouse itself.

“Food trucks are not allowed on the street because they compete with brick and mortar businesses that have invested in downtown,” Brock said. “This whole program will be on the lawn on county property.”

Programming will also be part of the equation, including “The Longest Table” event on Thursdays. That event looks to bring “civil discourse” to the courthouse lawn.

Brock said the county has lined up some interested partners, but the details are still taking shape. It could see the public interact with the homeless individuals that often spend their days napping on the lawn.

“It’s a place for civil discourse to help people recognize the humanity in their adversaries,” Brock said of The Longest Table. “We want to host a lunch on Thursday with people who hold opposing views on different issues. There’s no speeches or program in that way, but what we do have are volunteers acting as hosts. It’s not a political prompt. It’s about their lives and families.”

Other programs or additions could happen in the future. The county admitted the first year would be a work in progress. It has yet to allocate the funding needed to host the events but hopes to kick the program off this year.

“We want to change the culture,” Brock said. “If we decide to do it moving forward, we can absorb it into our operations indefinitely. We’re going to learn a lot and the program is going to evolve.”