Gentrification is Missoula’s True Economic Identity
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.