Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Two months after the city adopted the Midtown Master Plan, county officials followed suit last week, adding the plan as an official amendment to the redevelopment of the Missoula County Fairgrounds.

With the Midtown plan now in place, city officials expect private investment to follow. And as the fairgrounds continues to evolve, ensuring it blends seamlessly into the surrounding neighborhood has emerged as a key goal.

“We worked closely with Trempers and other business owners in their area, and street activation and getting people safely across Brooks is the biggest thing people talked about,” Emily Brock, the county's director of lands and economic development, told the Missoula Current. “I think that will really tie it all together, blending it into the neighborhood piece on Brooks and that corner.”

The Midtown plan takes a broad look at what's often described as the center of Missoula. It sets the stage for transportation enhancement, public transit, and the development of housing and commercial opportunities.

It also looks to transform what has long been dubbed “Malfunction Junction” and reimagines it as “Midtown Junction.” The fairgrounds and surrounding open space are now seen collectively as “Central Park.”

Now, plans to soften Russell Street and portions of Brooks are key to the vision's success, according to Melanie Brock, executive director of the Missoula Midtown Association.

“Brooks has become this mote of inequity, adding more and more amenities on one side of Brooks while the residents and people who work on the other side can't cross Brooks quickly and safely,” she said. “Part of this process is the permeability of Brooks.”

The fairgrounds was established more than a century ago. But in recent years, the county has taken steps to revitalize the property. It restored several historic buildings and the new Rocky Mountain Gardens and Insectarium are set to open as a new public attraction.

Last week, the county also announced plans to replace the aging grandstands with a new $3 million facility that will host everything from rodeos and motocross to concerts. The new attractions could be a boost to local businesses, so long as pedestrians can easily cross the area's network of busy streets.

“It's a challenging area. It's probably the largest challenge for cities in the U.S. – what do you do with that first-tier suburban development that was so car-centric, and now people want to live there, shop there and walk from place to place. That's not how these areas were designed,” said Ellen Buchanan, director of the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

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Unlike some other areas, Buchanan and others believe Midtown Junction and the fairgrounds will soon attract the private investment needed to transform the area. They both sit in Urban Renewal District III, which can help drive plans for housing, lodging, business and transportation.

“Having gone through two downtown master plans, and watching and being part of the success of those two plans, Midtown has a huge leg up,” Buchanan said. “We have resources, we have energy behind this plan, and the implementation will be stunning as we move this forward.”

The vision for the area has won broad community support, and local businesses have helped move the planning process forward, including Trempers. The shopping center opened in 1958 and was the city's first shopping center.

Debby Williams, the granddaughter of the developer, said the shopping center was built on a ranch well outside the city. Back then, Russell Street was a dirt road. Since them, growth has left the formerly rural shopping center in the heart of Missoula.

Williams praised the Midtown plan and supported its addition to the fairgrounds plan.

“This lays the framework now that we know how to proceed with implementation,” added Melanie Brock. “Now we know exactly what the community envisioned and how we want to see density increase, and how we want to see more commercial opportunities for businesses in the area.”

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