By Martin Kidston
Over the past two years, Robert Rivers and Fernanda Krum have slowly transformed a former used car lot on West Broadway into a center of social justice, a cause that makes the distillery tanks behind the bar look somewhat out of place.
But when it comes to the renovations taking place throughout the West Broadway corridor in downtown Missoula, atypical has become the norm.
“Our whole thought process came from trying to set up a for-profit company that could also push for social change at a community level,” said Rivers. “The city of Missoula really helped us get into this space with the hopes that we’d do our part in positively changing this side of town.”
Rivers and his wife, Krum, have met the city’s expectations. Their upstart business, Imagination Brewing Co., is one of several to land in the West Broadway corridor, a once downtrodden stretch of Missoula that’s now undergoing a unique transformation.
At a luncheon hosted by the Missoula Downtown Association on Tuesday, the brewing company joined the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, the Burns Street Bistro and the North Missoula Community Development Corporation in exploring the changes unfolding on the western edge of the downtown district.
From plans for a hotel and conference center on West Front Street to a new hard cider production facility on California Street, the district is on the rise and trending toward growth.
“It’s exactly the sort of thing we want to see happen along the West Broadway corridor,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan said of the planned improvements. “We treat our riverfront so badly, or at least we have historically. We’re finally starting to embrace it now, getting all those chunks of concrete, the Jersey barriers and rubble that has become our riverbank taken care of piece by piece.”
The changes unfolding across the district have been years in the making and came about in a rare mix of luck, determination and good planning. MRA purchased what’s often described as an island in the Clark Fork River just below Imagination Brewing five years ago with the intent of converting it to a city park.
Around that time, a steering committee was looking to memorialize a local student who died in a kayaking accident by building a kayaking wave in his honor. The resulting Max Wave – similar to Brennan’s Wave upriver – was proposed at a diversion weir behind Osprey Stadium.
“We understood there was a symbiotic relationship between this island, which isn’t really an island, and the wave, and we needed to do them in tandem,” said Buchanan. “But one of the problems was parking.”
To resolve the parking dilemma, MRA intended to purchase the building (car lot) on West Broadway. That’s when Rivers and Krum arrived on scene with their own plans to open a brewery with a social justice component.
“This little building that had sat here for years really wasn’t the highest and best use of the riverfront,” Buchanan said. “When they came in and mentioned their idea, we needed parking and they needed a down payment. We put together the quickest land deal the city has ever done.”
With approval from the City Council, MRA purchased a portion of the parking lot from Rivers and Krum, providing the down payment the couple needed to close on the property. As a result, the West Broadway corridor got a new business and the city got parking for the future island park and kayaking wave.
Once completed, Buchanan said, the improvements should do the same for West Broadway as Caras Park and Brennan’s Wave did for downtown Missoula.
“The social benefit of Brennan’s Wave has been huge,” Buchanan said. “The difference that wave has made in the activities that go on in Cara’s Park and along the riverfront and the people who hang out there is huge. That wave has totally shifted what goes on on the riverfront.”
While Imagination Brewing opened its doors 17 months ago, plans for the wave continue to grind forward. The effort remains stuck in the permitting process, one Buchanan admits has been tedious and expensive.
“I’m confident that we’ll have another kayak wave out here in the not-so-distant future, at which time we’ll open up the island,” Buchanan said. “We’re already getting some of the non-native species out of there and cleaning it up so that it’s not a refuge for things that probably shouldn’t go on there.”
Jason Shreder, vice president of Max Wave, said few venture past Brennan’s Wave on the Clark Fork River. The stretch of river is cluttered with concrete, rebar and Jersey barrier, making it unsafe for public use.
Cleaning up the river will draw more users to the area, further enhancing the West Broadway corridor, Shreder said.
“There’s a reason why not many people are hanging out below Brennan’s Wave down to here, and there’s also reasons why, if you go down to the West Broadway island on a Saturday, there’s no one hanging out down there either,” he said. “We haven’t taken ownership of this area yet.”
Shreder said the group has successfully raised more than $200,000 to help with planning and design. However, he said, the project still awaits a permit.
“We’re trying to work with these different agencies and public interest groups to get on the same page and try to create a plan and a project we can all agree on to benefit the entire community, not just one specific user group,” said Shreder. “We’ll get the project done.”
Once the project is ready to go, Buchanan said, MRA could partner in the effort. Most recently, it provided tax increment funding to the Western Cider Co., which plans to open a tap room and hard cider production facility in the same West Broadway neighborhood.
Further investment in the district could incentive additional change and continue the neighborhood’s transformation.
“Our agency was really supportive of Brennan’s Wave, and I think there will be public funding available for Max Wave,” Buchanan said. “We see growth in this urban renewal district.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at email@example.com