Gentrification is Missoula’s True Economic Identity

by lizard

In a 7-5 vote, Caitlin Copple’s effort to reinsert the downtown ban on gateway conduct commonly referred to as “sitting” failed:

On Monday night, the Missoula City Council adopted updates to its public peace, morals and welfare regulations. While they prohibit sitting within 10 feet of a business entrance downtown, a bid by Councilwoman Caitlin Copple to ban sitting anywhere on downtown sidewalks from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. was rejected. In a 7-5 vote, councilors Copple, Jon Wilkins, Mike O’Herron, Annelise Hedahl and Ed Childers supported the amendment.

Businesses got nearly everything they wanted out of these ordinances. Lying/Sleeping is still prohibited downtown between 6am-11pm, the distance a person can sit from an entryway increased from 6 feet to 10 feet, and the trifecta of sitting/sleeping/lying on footbridges passed.

Of course getting nearly everything they asked for still doesn’t seem to be enough for downtown businesses, as evidenced by today’s article Downtown businesses worry new laws won’t deter customer harassment.

In that article, Brent Campbell laments about a lack of retail investment in what I consider a case of full-blown Bozeman envy:

But the challenge to protect downtown commerce remains, as does the desire to grow retail in the city center, said Campbell, with the Downtown Association. In his capacity as president of WGM Group, Campbell often travels to Bozeman. He said its downtown has a busy hardware store and strong grocery store on its main drag, along with other local franchises, yet Missoula has “significantly” more employees downtown.

“We have a bigger market. We have a bigger population. Why aren’t those things being invested in in our downtown retail?” Campbell said. “We have lots of investment in nightlife and in banking and law firms. But why aren’t people investing in retail?”

Bozeman and Helena both have Macy’s department stores, and Macy’s closed in downtown Missoula. The Missoula Mercantile at Higgins Avenue and Front Street has been vacant since 2010.

“The rumor is that Macy’s is going to reopen on Reserve Street. So what does it take for us to be able to attract meaningful retail in our downtown?” He said the question is important, and the Mayor’s Downtown Advisory Commission has been working on the matter for a year.

“I think the downtown business community has spoken about what the issue is, and I’m not sure City Council is listening,” Campbell said.

Moving forward, the Missoula Downtown Association will focus on a two-step solution, he said: First, a drop-in center for people who are inebriated, and second, wet housing.

“We want to continue to improve the situation in downtown Missoula,” Campbell said.

It’s good that the MDA wants to move forward, considering they used veiled threats of “compassion fatigue” regarding supporting the 10 year plan to end homelessness. Of course, we heard over and over again that this was about behavior and not homelessness, a claim somewhat undermined by the two-step solution now being mentioned.

In lamenting about the lack of retail downtown to balance the bankers, lawyers and “nightlife” that primarily fuels the economic activity, Campbell answered his own question: Reserve Street. Big box retail offers lower prices and they don’t rip you off with faulty parking meters.

I would say lower prices is the main incentive that draws shoppers to Reserve Street, because Missoula doesn’t have a lot of good paying jobs putting discretionary money into the pockets of Missoulians. Add to that factors like St. Pats, Missoula’s second largest employer, shedding jobs because of the economic climate exacerbated by our state legislature denying medicaid expansion, and you can begin to see there are other reasons impacting businesses downtown.

Speaking of employers, check out this list of Missoula’s top employers from 2009:

1. University of Montana, 3,651

2. St. Patrick Hospital, 1,600

3. Missoula County Public Schools, 1,424

4. Community Medical Center, 1,200

5. DirecTV Customer Service, 1,000

6. U.S. Forest Service, 800

7. Missoula County, 775

8. Wal-Mart, 524

9. City of Missoula, 514

10. Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., 432

11. Montana Rail Link, 254

12. Western Montana Clinic, 252

Going down the list, the University of Montana has shrinking enrollment and budget problems, our two hospitals are dropping jobs left and right, the US Forest Service recently moved out of downtown, our schools have to make sure they can keep raising the pay of their administrators, Walmart pays its employees shit by subsidizing their bottom-line with federal programs, like food stamps, and Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. is gone.

So when Campbell says he wants to “continue to improve the situation in downtown Missoula” I would suggest maybe thinking beyond the boundaries of the BID.

A few days ago Pete Talbot wrote about the front page Sunday Missoulian article examining the perception that Missoula needs to reinvent its economic identity. Pete mostly goes after the Montana Policy Institute for being a right-wing think tank, which I agree is troubling. He concludes his post with this:

Most folks aren’t getting rich in Missoula, but we’ve been buffered from the radical boom-and-bust cycle better than many Montana cities precisely because of our diverse economy. Please keep that in mind and build on it (also, support for a big hike in the minimum wage would be in everyone’s best interest, something you can be sure the Montana Policy Institute is against).

So let’s not pander to the institute’s short-sighted, free-market, non-sustainable model. We have more going for us than that, and the Missoulian, for credibility, shouldn’t be quoting the Montana Policy Institute anymore.

Pete’s right, most folks aren’t getting rich in Missoula. They get rich elsewhere, then move here because the glossy magazines make it look like a high-cultured utopian college town.

Missoula’s past decade of gentrified growth is not a trend intended to help the working class or poor. It’s a type of development intended to upgrade and exclude—great for real estate agents and developers; not so great for someone working at Walmart (or a barista working at Liquid Planet, for that matter).

While many in Missoula may bristle at a comparison to San Francisco, a recent article about how San Francisco is losing its soul to tech-fueled gentrification is a great read. Here is how the piece opens:

Poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti came to San Francisco in 1951 because he heard it was a great place to be a bohemian. He settled in the Italian working-class neighbourhood of North Beach with its cheap rents and European ambience. And before long he put the city on the world’s counter-cultural map by publishing the work of Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. But despite his status as world and local literary legend, the 94-year-old co-owner of the renowned City Lights bookshop and publishing house doesn’t feel so at home in the City by the Bay anymore.

He complains of a “soulless group of people”, a “new breed” of men and women too busy with iPhones to “be here” in the moment, and shiny new Mercedes-Benzs on his street. The major art galley in central San Francisco that has shown Ferlinghetti’s work for two decades is closing because it can’t afford the new rent. It, along with several other galleries, will make way for a cloud computing startup called MuleSoft said to have offered to triple the rent. “It is totally shocking to see Silicon Valley take over the city,” says Ferlinghetti, who still rents in North Beach. “San Francisco is radically changing and we don’t know where it is going to end up.”

If gentrification produced equal benefit across the socio-economic spectrum, then I doubt there would be as much tension. But it doesn’t produce equal benefits. That is something for Missoulians to think about as we continue to struggle under the economic consequences of bailing out Wall Street and letting Main Street stagnate and decline.


  1. d.g.

    Excellent coverage! Thank you 420 for taking on Missoula City Council and, in doing so, acknowledging the real grist of what happens and why in much of Missoula. (Sad statement given that the cast of The Red Green Show and the cast of Gilligan’s Island make up our council.)

  2. Liz: Here’s a more expanded, and slightly more up-to-date (mid-2011), list of Missoula County’s top 20 private employers, as well as top 10 public employers.

    The data comes from the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, but is listed at MEP’s website.

    • Thanks for those lists, both of you. Good stuff here, I’ll have to come back and take a closer look tonight.

    • lizard19

      thanks Matt.

  3. Adam

    Mr. Campbell & the hundreds of others with Bozeman envy would do well to realize that Bozeman has a pragmatic, moderate Republican as Mayor. Many of the people routinely complaining about Missoula’s economy are the same people who donate to, support, and defend the inept idealogue Missoula has had as Mayor for the past eight years.

    • lizard19

      I get why you would say ideologue, but I’d say it’s more of a clique. Missoula is still a very small town, and personal relationships seem to trump ideology. I’m thinking the baseball stadium fiasco is a good example of that.

      it’s funny, when that conservative political newcomer beat Pam Walzer, I was highly critical of the Indy describing that win as an important counter-weight to the super-progressive majority that would have ensued had Pam actually campaigned and won.

      I was wrong, and the Indy was right.

      • Adam

        Thank you. I appreciate that. I agree with your clique comment. I’m hopeful that the new council is a little more sensible than recent councils, but only time will tell if any of the newer members are willing to defy the boss hog.

      • petetalbot

        You lost me here, liz. How does a conservative political newcomer help council make decisions? Do you know how Pam would have voted on the “panhandling” ordinance or other “gentrification” issues?

        Also, I don’t know if “super-progressive” was your term or the Indy’s, but the majority of the council is made up of moderate Democrats and a few who are relatively progressive. It was some of those progressives who voted with the few conservatives to oppose the “panhandling” ordinance. And I’m sure the conservatives on council voted against the ordinance not out of any love for the homeless but because they didn’t want the city to be sued.

        While I appreciate Adam’s comments here at 4&20, I don’t think that the Republican mayor of Bozeman has much to do with the success of Bozeman’s downtown (as pointed out by Steve Kelly, below). Bozemanians seem to have more disposable income and more tourists with money in their pockets, therefore, a healthier downtown.

        Finally, while nobody likes a clique, Missoula’s City Council is no more cliquish than other city councils, state legislatures or, dare I say, the U.S. Congress.

        • Adam

          I have to wonder if you’ve paid attention to Missoula’s City Council lately, Pete. I’m the ONLY conservative on council. There are not a “few” of us. Every single Democrat on the council with the exception of Jon Wilkins is a self-professed “progressive.” There’s one newly elected “independent,” and it’s probably too early to determine how accurate that label really is, especially considering the endorsement she received from the Missoula County Democrats. In total, that makes for 10 self-professed “progressives” in a 12 member body.

          Liz makes a really good point that I think is relevant to governance in general. Super majorities don’t make for good governance. More often than not, political super majorities result in group think, monotony, and even abuse. If our city council was made up of 12 tea partiers, a moderate Republican, and an independent I’d be every bit as concerned about the quality of representation.

          Bozeman doesn’t hold tourism up as the magic economic potion that Missoula seems to think it is. Tell me, what is so attractive about a tourism based economy? Is it this minimum wage service jobs tourism creates? Or is it the large amounts of fossil fuels expended to get tourists from destination to destination? Perhaps it’s the non-existent sales tax revenue?

          The truth is, Bozeman understands the reality of growth. A strong tax base is a growing, diverse tax base. Bozeman attracts business by welcoming business without the need to join a clique or conform to a list of targeted industries. Missoula has become notorious as a comfortable place for those who are already financially stable and a frustrating, sad place for many who are condemned to the same crappy service jobs lauded by their local elected officials and transient electorate.

          • Adam

            9 progressives. #mathfail

          • Excellent and spot-on analysis, Mr. Hertz.

          • petetalbot

            You and I define the term “progressive” differently, Adam. I’ve seen moderate votes come from most members on council at one time or another. Whether it’s ADUs, panhandling, soup kitchens … council votes are full of surprises.

            You’ve already mentioned Wilkins. Childers certainly isn’t too far to the left, wouldn’t you agree, and Copple seems to be advancing the city’s business interests as much as anyone on council. I haven’t been keeping up so much on the newer faces on council, I have to admit, but none seem very radical so far.

            Boss Hog, and I believe you are referring to the mayor, has been elected to office by margins that most candidates can only dream of. I don’t always agree with him, but he must be doing something right.

            I don’t hold tourism up as a panacea, I’m just saying that Bozeman’s downtown generates significant income from the tourist trade. Its airport rivals Billings for most passengers; Yellowstone Park and Big Sky environs play a large part. MSU graduates a good number of engineers, electrical and otherwise, which makes it attractive to tech start ups. That’s just being in the right place at the right time. Billings’ economy is doing well, also, but again, its proximity to Balken and coal puts it in the right place at the right time. Don’t see that as sustainable, though.

            I have an honest question for you, Adam, how do you see our economy evolving?

  4. What if we took a macro approach and related the trends of Missoula’s economy to that of cities around the world? (as you have started to do with SF)

    Growing inequality, stagnating wages and mounting debt is near universal for the globe’s “middle classes” and I think a close look at Kiev, Cairo, Madrid,or Detroit would show a generation whose future has been mortgaged to the hilt reacting in different ways to the tension.

    Being a playground to the rich and an energy colony has helped Montana weather much of this turmoil but neither “sector” is sustainable in the long run.

  5. steve kelly

    The city manager runs the business of Bozeman, not the mayor, or the city council. That structural flaw creates sprawl no city should want. Talk of “downtown” is just that, talk. The action is paving over the surrounding farmland — topsoil so deep rocks are hauled in to support new roads. Bozeman has no answers.

    • Flatly stated as fact but lacking any substance. Let’s just say that ‘opinions differ’.

    • The Mayor has been the city manager 3 or 4 times now, I think. He’s so popular, but they way they have elections there, he keep effectively getting re-elected. Krauss is now Mayor, but when he’s city manager, he’s “the once and future Mayor of Bozeman.”

      Bozeman has jobs. Good, high paying and sustainable tech jobs. They’re a magnet for them anymore.

      Missoula has no job identity at all. Except maybe minimum wage Reserve Street.

  6. JC

    If Missoula wanted to “revitalize” downtown, it needs to get off the retail fantasy. Trying to draw folks off of Reserve and Brooks to compete downtown is a recipe for disaster.

    Look at what downtown has to offer, and build on that. It is a place desperately clamoring to build community, not commerce. Our library is overcrowded, and we have a giant space over at the old Fox site. Build a library, underground parking and a park. Get the Merc back into use as a low-rent place where a diverse array of small businesses can get started and grow, don’t pimp it out to high-dollar boutiques.

    We’ve got hundreds of acres of parking along the riverfront, get rid of it and build a few underground/vertical lots, and increase the diversity of the riverfront. Help the Wilma to succeed as a community gathering place for events like film festivals, concerts, alternative productions, etc.

    Pedestrians and cyclists have a difficult time getting from one side of the riverfront to the other. Build pedestrian/bike bridges at Orange street and Higgins, extend the north trail along the riverside from Caras Park to the footbridge by campus. Link McCormick and Silver Parks with the downtown system. Build beach areas for people to hang when the weather’s good–Jacob’s Island and north side of McCormick Park are good places.

    Too many cars competing for limited parking in front of existing businesses–parking structures are underutilized. So get rid of much on street parking, forcing cars into the structures, and create downtown greenspace — walking malls, bike paths, places for people to gather.

    The current available space for the various markets is too limited and needs to be expanded. Downtown cries out for good places to have concerts. Caras Park is poorly configured due to location. Get rid of surface lease parking on the east side of the Higgins Bridge and build a good outdoor amphitheater good for 5,000 people.

    Actually, I think that city-owned surface lease parking is probably the biggest waste of space, and disincentive to making the downtown more livable than anything.

    Campbell’s focus on retail is nothing more than a desire to play into the hands of the greedmeisters who have no desire to build Missoula as a community. I could go on and on with my list, but as long as Campbell and Co. are only focusing on retail, and what inhibits it, then the solutions to what ails downtown necessarily going to miss the mark, and focus on the wrong issues — like sitting on the sidewalk — that divide our community instead of solving problems creatively and bring us together,

    • I like that idea of the underground parking by the river. That’d be an expensive project, but honestly, I don’t see how something like that won’t be done over the next 20 years or so.

    • Abe Froman

      Not a good idea to build a new library at the Fox site, potential loss of tax revenue.

      • JC

        When’s the last time the Fox site has generated any tax revenue, Abe? What, maybe 25 years ago? And when will again? Maybe after the city and MRA donate the land to a developer and give it millions in grants and tax breaks and other concessions? And how much has the city made leasing parking spaces there in the last 10 years? Maybe a few 10’s of thousands.

        And if that site were turned into a city park/library, the old site could be sold, which would bring that whole city block and building back into the tax revenue stream… I’m sure the old library would fetch a pretty penny on the open market, too to help finance a new structure.

        The city/county sinking money into the Merc for a library is a huge waste of resources, in my opinion. Leave it as a small business incubator.

      • 100 percent correct. Downtown should be business – losing tax base on the highest value property is no friend to anything.

  7. d.g.

    comment removed


  8. JC

    “If there’s no law to back us, we’re just going to do it ourselves,” [Liquid Planet GM Chad] Strickland said.

    Threatening to go all vigilante on us now, is he? Nice.

  9. Steve W

    It’s a good thing the city voted to avert a sit-in downtown. I would have openly disobeyed and flaunted that silly bit of authoritarian anti-human rights law making.

    The downtown business folks should open up a hang out for the drunks so they go there after shopping for alcohol and filling prescriptions downtown.

    They should have done that long ago. For less money and much less time they could solve their problem. But they aren’t that creative and instead prefer to repeat the heavy handed failed policies of the past.

    Frankly i’m shocked that the city tax payers are being asked to pay for new laws to police the problems with alcohol downtown. Downtown is tiny, yet they suck up the enforcement money.

    Can’t we shift these enforcement costs to the license holders, and the license holders attorneys, who economically benefit from alcohol sales and pharmaceutical drug sales? maybe the police could donate a share of their pay checks in order to be able to have the opportunity to enforce these new laws. Has anyone bothered to ask what level of interest there is? I mean among the many many people who don’t own a downtown business but who live locally and shop downtown occasionally, I get zero benefit from not being able to tie my shoe, rest my weary legs, or sit down if I think I need to. My property tax dollars pay for those streets.

    Would the Missoula Downtown Association feel it better that people experience a stroke instead of sitting down?

    i don’t buy the arguments. I don’t buy the exceptionalism the Missoula Downtown Association feels entitled to.

    Thumbs up to the council for voting down this over-reach.

  10. Abe Froman

    Have the street ruffians really become that bad in Missoula to warrant this kind of attention from the city counsel? Don’t they all hop on a train to Portland for the winter anyway? Seems to be quite the over reaction from the council.

  11. Ferlenghetti is like many in the country and Montana today – old and decrying the changes going on about them which they understand little or anything about.

    I’ve never had any luck stopping time or the forces that move it, but for some reason others think this is still possible.

    I’ve heard stories of when Reserve street was pastureland and of course people bemoan that loss. Many have no recollection of that and there’s just no way it’s coming back.

    What’s so important about revitalizing downtown is that you can get off this reliance we have on automobiles. To get to Reserve street you’ve got to drive.

    Hey, I rode my bike out there for 5 years when I needed to get over there from living downtown, but most don’t do that.

    And why can’t we have two large shopping and commercial areas? We’re big enough.

    I’d love to have 5,000 seats at Caras Park (or at least the capacity), but those neighbors still smarting over Sammy Hagar won’t.

    I don’t know how much money’s been poured into downtown this past year, but I don’t think any of it’s affected me. My pay isn’t reliant on it, my goods don’t come from there, and I rarely venture thataway.

    It’s unfortunate that one area gets so much attention when other areas need love.

    How about over by Trempers and that general area. How about where Kmart was or even those little pockets of businesses you see in residential areas.

    I’d also like to see how we can get some TIFF/TED money into the city for projects like this, although I think there’s restrictions there where they can only be used in the county or something.

    The point is, maybe putting more money into different areas is a better option than continually flinging it at downtown. I’m just not sure that’s the right approach anymore.

  12. Abe from an

    I think most find some value in promoting a thriving downtown central area as a way to control the soul deadening cookie cutter suburban sprawl. I remember those days when reserve was pastureland and the last business on the way put of town south was LaBelles. Missoula was a lot smaller then and there’s no going back but promoting a thriving downtown is certainly worthwhile. I don’t know that bum sweeps by the police are really much of a solution though. Seems more like a solution in search of a problem.

  13. Big Swede

    The city of Billings welcomes Missoula refugees with open arms.

    Come bask in our great economy and where the homeless stick to the railroad tracks.

  14. steve kelly

    “Puritanism: the haunting feeling that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

    — H. L. Mencken

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